Global rates of obesity continue to increase. Government policy makers and health-care professionals are desperate to do something. Anything. And NOVA, a crude but useful tool used by nutrition researchers to map chronic health conditions to degree of processing, is attracting attention.
There’s plenty to criticize about NOVA. Its four food classification groups are at best squishy, at worst downright arbitrary. And significant gaps of logic are emerging now that food scientists and nutrition researchers are starting to take a serious look.
Still, I believe Carlos Monteiro is onto something, and I’d like to explain how I came to that conclusion.
Monteiro, now a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of São Paulo’s School of Public Health, started his career in the 1970s working as a young pediatrician in poor rural villages and urban slums of Brazil’s largest city. Over the next three decades, he was able to map eating habits and chronic disease, and his observations became the basis for the NOVA food classification system.
Complex is how I’d describe my attraction to NOVA.
I currently work in recipe analysis and food labeling, but despite my analytic inclination, I’m a foodie at heart and love to cook. From time to time, I’ve been privileged to work with some wonderful chefs, and it’s during these sessions that I came to realize the appeal NOVA has for people who cook.
NOVA’s inherent “squishiness,” which makes academics, food scientists, and my fellow dietitians so crazy, doesn’t bother chefs. The best cooks understand the complexity of simple cooking. They start with fresh ingredients. Freshness depends on seasons, localities, climate, and other variables. Fresh ingredients are exactly what gets classified in NOVA as Group 1, minimally processed foods.
Placing fats, sugars, and salt in NOVA Group 2, processed culinary ingredients, also makes sense because that’s how chefs cook. Particular choices or combinations always depend on culture, tradition, and personal taste. As for NOVA Group 3, processed foods, every culture has developed its own unique set of traditionally processed ingredients. Up until recently, adding salt, sugar, or fat was how foods were kept safe.
Once I take off my analytic hat and put on my chef’s cap, NOVA starts to make sense to me. The subjective experience of eating. Tastes. Smells. Sounds. Joys. Pleasures. Textures. Terroir. Traditions. Cultures.
When I put my analytic hat back on, I see the arbitrariness, absurdity, and disorderliness of the classification system. And I agree that until researchers are able to find causal mechanisms, the extent to which industrially formulated foods are to blame for the dramatic rise in obesity rates remains a matter of speculation.
I am not a food scientist. But I have spent 30 years working in weight loss and studying the science of nutrition as it applies to metabolic health. Experience has taught me that the behavioral approach to weight loss only works for some people, so we must look elsewhere. Obesity is also a complex issue, but I think it’s likely that researchers will identify aspects of food processing that are a contributing factor.
Food is messy. It doesn’t always fit neatly into boxes or groups or graphs or spreadsheets. My business is based on reducing the radiant complexity of food to listing nutrients on a label or running numbers on a recipe or researching a health claim for a client. But I know those numbers don’t come close to capturing our collective human culinary legacy.
Eating is a subjective experience based on individual occurrences. I never ate a traditional Brazilian home-cooked meal in 1980s São Paulo, but I believe that meal served a need that was valid. I am attracted to NOVA because the classification system acknowledges that food is more than just the sum of its nutrient parts.
The expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.
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