Linn Steward

Group Discussion
Join the Discussion right arrow
Is there a viable context in which NOVA makes some sense? And could that inform sensible modifications? Share your thoughts by joining the discussion on IFT Connect.
Chef prepping food
Chef prepping food

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.

"All I need to do is take off my analytic hat and put on my chef’s cap and NOVA starts to make sense to me too."

- Linn Steward, RDN, recipe analyst and food and nutrition consultant , Gourmet Metrics

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.

In This Article

  1. Diet and Health

About the Author

Linn Steward, RDN, is a recipe analyst and food and nutrition consultant ([email protected]).

Digital Exclusives right arrow

10 Food Trend Predictions for 2022

The editors at Food Technology magazine, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), have announced their predictions for the hottest food trends for 2022.

When Science Follows Technology

While canning is commonplace today, for that generation of food technologists it was a paradigmatic example of the power of science to change food for the better.

Ingredient Companies Seek Sodium Reduction Solutions

In October 2021, the FDA released new voluntary guidance on sodium reduction with the overarching goal of reducing consumption by 12% over the next two-and-a-half years.

North American Consumers Get Comfortable With Cannabis

What changes have occurred in the way Canadians perceive cannabis since it was legalized there in 2018? How do Canadian and U.S. consumers of cannabis and edibles compare?

Food Technology Articles right arrow

Breakfast Buzz: Comfort Meets Adventure

Functional and upcycled ingredients, global flavors, plant-based alternatives, fun mash-ups, and portable solutions wake up traditional breakfast CPGs.

Personal, Planetary Health Drive Snack Formulating

An update on the trends in healthy snacks and the ingredients used in formulating them

Small Segments, Big Opportunities

This column describes top niche food and beverage categories with recent high sales gains.

Meatless steak, shelf-stable hummus, and plant-based burgers and meatballs

Hot new products include meatless steak strips, natural hummus snacks, and plant-based meat for burgers, meatballs, and breakfast patties.

Recent Brain Food right arrow

IFT Comments on Proposed Questions for 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

IFT responds to scientific questions to be examined to support the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Specifically, “What is the relationship between consumption of dietary patterns with varying amounts of ultra-processed foods and growth, size, body composition, risk of overweight and obesity, and weight loss and maintenance?”

The Latest from IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center

Discover what the team behind IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center is working on, including recent events, research projects, and advocacy efforts

DEI Case Study: IFT Revamps Long-Time Scholarship Program

In an effort to provide the science of food community with actionable information that can be used in their own DEI efforts, IFT shares a case study of its recent effort to increase accessibility and inclusivity in its scholarship program.

IFT Scientists' Top 5 Food Trends to Consider in 2022

What's on the horizon for the global food system in 2022? IFT’s Science and Policy Initiatives team gives their predictions on five trends that are expected to take shape in the new year.