Food processing defines any procedure that alters food from its natural state, such as freezing; drying; milling; canning; mixing; or adding salt, sugar, fat, or other additives. They have been part of our diet since ancient times. Food technology has evolved in parallel with mankind.
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Over the years, different systems have emerged to classify foods according to their degree of processing in order to guide public health policies. These include the IARC-EPIC system (European level) and UNC systems (United States), the NIPH system (Mexico), the IFPRI system (Guatemala), the NOVA system (Brazil) and the SIGA system (France).
The NOVA system developed by Monteiro and colleagues has become the most widely used in research and policy. This distinguishes between four categories of food:
- unprocessed and minimally processed foods as edible parts of whole foods, modified without adding new substances to extend shelf-life, safety or palatability (e.g. milled cereals, meats, eggs, milk, vegetables, nuts and seeds);
- processed culinary ingredients as extracted substances, or substances collected from nature, for use in food preparation (e.g. vegetable oils, vinegar, butter, sugar and salt);
- processed foods as combinations of culinary ingredients, unprocessed or minimally processed (e.g. canned fish, cheese, artisanal breads, cured meats);
- Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as ready-to-consume and ready-to-heat formulations, made by combining substances derived from foods with cosmetic additives, typically through a series of industrial processes (e.g. soft drinks, confectionary, savoury snacks, many packaged breads and sweet biscuits)
Nutrition experts and part of the scientific community have expressed concerns about the use of the NOVA as well as similar systems that attribute nutritional superiority to less processed foods to be overly simplistic and not supported by robust scientific evidence.
Given these limitations, national regulation and the policies based on these approaches could, in fact, negatively impact nutrition and health and mislead consumers about their food choices.
Chemical analysis of the composition and hazards in these kinds of foods is essential to choose the best formulations, support health and nutrition claims, and do the proper label declarations including allergen warnings.
- The concept “ULTRA-PROCESSED” Triptolemos Foundation (Spain). World Food Regulation Review . Vol 30. Num 6. Nov 2020
- Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., da Costa Louzada, M.L. y Pereira Machado, P. (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. FAO. Roma. www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf