The big issue is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to food, before they are consumed
Under this premise, NUPENS team, led by professor Carlos Monteiro, has started a pioneering research path on the effects of industrial food processing on population’s health. The initial studies proposed a new food classification that focuses on the extent and purpose of industrial processing, before they are purchased and consumed by individuals, and identified the group of ultra-processed as a potential risk factor for obesity and non-communicable diseases. Thereafter, the food classification was applied to household food purchase database in order to evaluate food consumption trends and the potential impacts of ultra-processed products on nutritional diet quality and obesity occurrence in Brazil. In 2011, NUPENS has accepted the Health Ministry’s challenge of including this new approach on the second edition of Brazilian Dietary Guidelines.
This food classification categorises foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing before they are purchased and consumed by people. Food processing as identified by this classification, entitled NOVA, involves physical, biological and chemical processes that occur after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or used in the preparation of dishes and meals. Methods used in the culinary preparation of food in home or restaurant kitchens, including disposal of non-edible parts, fractioning, cooking, seasoning, and mixing various foods, are not taken into account by the classification.
Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed food
Grupo 1 Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, that didn’t suffer any alteration after separation from nature. The acquisition of fresh food is limited to a few varieties such as fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers and eggs. And yet, it is common that even these foods undergo some changes before being purchased, such as cleaning and cooling.
Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes such as removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, or non-alcoholic fermentation. None of these processes adds substances such as salt, sugar, oils or fats to the original food.
The main purpose of the processes used in the production of group 1 foods is to extend the life of unprocessed foods, allowing their storage for longer use, such as chilling, freezing, drying, and pasteurising. Other purposes include facilitating or diversifying food preparation, such as in the removal of inedible parts and fractioning of vegetables, the crushing or grinding of seeds, the roasting of coffee beans or tea leaves, and the fermentation of milk to make yoghurt.
Group 1 foods include fresh, squeezed, chilled, frozen, or dried fruits and leafy and root vegetables; grains such as brown, parboiled or white rice, corn cob or kernel, wheat berry or grain; legumes such as beans of all types, lentils, chickpeas; starchy roots and tubers such as potatoes and cassava, in bulk or packaged; fungi such as fresh or dried mushrooms; meat, poultry, fish and seafood, whole or in the form of steaks, fillets and other cuts, or chilled or frozen; eggs; milk, pasteurised or powdered; fresh or pasteurised fruit or vegetable juices without added sugar, sweeteners or flavours; grits, flakes or flour made from corn, wheat, oats, or cassava; pasta, couscous and polenta made with flours, flakes or grits and water; tree and ground nuts and other oil seeds without added salt or sugar; spices such as pepper, cloves and cinnamon; and herbs such as thyme and mint, fresh or dried; plain yoghurt with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners added; tea, coffee, drinking water.
Group 1 also includes foods made up from two or more items in this group, such as dried mixed fruits, granola made from cereals, nuts and dried fruits with no added sugar, honey or oil; and foods with vitamins and minerals added generally to replace nutrients lost during processing, such as wheat or corn flour fortified with iron or folic acid.
Group 1 items may infrequently contain additives used to preserve the properties of the original food. Examples are vacuum-packed vegetables with added anti-oxidants, and ultra-pasteurised milk with added stabilisers.
Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients
These are substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and spray drying.
The purpose of processing here is to make products used in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook group 1 foods and to make with them varied and enjoyable hand-made dishes, soups and broths, breads, preserves, salads, drinks, desserts and other culinary preparations.
Group 2 items are rarely consumed in the absence of group 1 foods. Examples are salt mined or from seawater; sugar and molasses obtained from cane or beet; honey extracted from combs and syrup from maple trees; vegetable oils crushed from olives or seeds; butter and lard obtained from milk and pork; and starches extracted from corn and other plants.
Products consisting of two group 2 items, such as salted butter, group 2 items with added vitamins or minerals, such as iodised salt, and vinegar made by acetic fermentation of wine or other alcoholic drinks, remain in this group. Group 2 items may contain additives used to preserve the product’s original properties. Examples are vegetable oils with added anti-oxidants, cooking salt with added anti-humectants, and vinegar with added preservatives that prevent microorganism proliferation
Group 3 – Processed foods
These are relatively simple products made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other group 2 substances to group 1 foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation.
The main purpose of the manufacture of processed foods is to increase the durability of group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.
Typical examples of processed foods are canned or bottled vegetables, fruits and legumes; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; salted, cured, or smoked meats; canned fish; fruits in syrup; cheeses and unpackaged freshly made breads.
Processed foods may contain additives used to preserve their original properties or to resist microbial contamination. Examples are fruits in syrup with added anti-oxidants, and dried salted meats with added preservatives.
When alcoholic drinks are identified as foods, those produced by fermentation of group 1 foods such as beer, cider and wine, are classified here in Group 3.
Group 4 – Ultra-processed foods and drink products
These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.
Substances only found in ultra-processed products include some directly extracted from foods, such as casein, lactose, whey, and gluten, and some derived from further processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Classes of additive only found in ultra-processed products include dyes and other colours, colour stabilisers, flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners, and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants. Several industrial processes with no domestic equivalents are used in the manufacture of ultra-processed products, such as extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying.
The main purpose of industrial ultra-processing is to create products that are ready to eat, to drink or to heat, liable to replace both unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are naturally ready to consume, such as fruits and nuts, milk and water, and freshly prepared drinks, dishes, desserts and meals. Common attributes of ultra-processed products are hyper-palatability, sophisticated and attractive packaging, multi-media and other aggressive marketing to children and adolescents, health claims, high profitability, and branding and ownership by transnational corporations.
Examples of typical ultra-processed products are: carbonated drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; ice-cream, chocolate, candies (confectionery); mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and spreads; cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; ‘energy’ drinks; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; cocoa drinks; meat and chicken extracts and ‘instant’ sauces; infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products; ‘health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as powdered or ‘fortified’ meal and dish substitutes; and many ready to heat products including pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products, and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts.
When products made solely of group 1 or group 3 foods also contain cosmetic or sensory intensifying additives, such as plain yoghurt with added artificial sweeteners, and breads with added emulsifiers, they are classified here in group 4.
Classes of additives and substances restricted to products of the NOVA classification’s Group 4: sweeteners, carbonation agents, firming agents, bulking agents, anti-caking agents, anti-foaming agents, bleaching agentes, flavourings, carriers, colourings, emulsifiers, sparkling, stabilizeres, flavouring, thickeners, flavour enhancers, sequestrants, humectants, invert sugar, modified corn starch, casein, collagen hydrolyzate, malt extract, dietary fiber, gluten, protein hydrolysates, inulin, soy protein isolate, and other foods, lactose, maltodextrin, butter cocoa, hydrogenated oils, oils interestereficados, ovalbumin, whey, high fructose corn syrup.
Consumption appears as part of culinary preparations with recipes that include raw food or minimally processed, processed cooking ingredients and eventually processed foods or, exceptionally, ultra-processaded.
In such cases, NOVA classification is applied to the individual components of preparations, after its breakdown made based on revenues. Alternatively, the culinary preparations can be classified based on food raw or minimally processed to have greater presence in the recipe, is reducing the number of groups of four to three. In this situation, NOVA understand classification groups: food raw or minimally processed and your culinary preparations, processed foods and foods ultraprocessados. The first group would include food raw or minimally processed alone consumed other foods, such as a fruit or a glass of milk, and fresh food or consumed minimally processed combined with other foods such as braised vegetables with olive oil, salt and spices and pasta with tomato sauce and grated cheese.