Limitations of the NOVA Processed Foods Classification System

In 2009, Brazilian researchers came up with the NOVA classification system to determine the level of processing of any food. 

Level 1 is whole, real food, minimally altered. Level 2 is culinary ingredients. Level 3 contains combinations of level 1 and 2 foods; this includes things like baked goods, multi-ingredient homemade dishes, etc. Level 4 is reserved for ultra-processed, packaged foods made of factory ingredients. 

On its surface, this system is really helpful. But a study just came out that examined the inter-rater reliability of NOVA category assignments. In the study, they asked food and nutrition experts to assign foods to the categories. Alas, they found that, even with a food as simple as plain yogurt, arguments could be made to classify it as level 1, level 3, or level 4. And foods as different as canned green beans and grape jelly are both categorized as level 3 foods, though their nutritional value and amount of processing of the ingredients couldn’t be more different. 

My hope is that someone develops a better, more effective, more reliable rating system. But the NOVA system is already widely accepted, and there’s so much ignorance and confusion about food in general these days that I doubt it will happen any time soon.


Episode: Limitations of the NOVA Processed Foods Classification System | Bright Line Living | The Official Bright Line Eating Podcast