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Food processing: criteria for dietary guidance and public health?

  • Julie Miller Jones (a1)


The NOVA food categorisation recommends ‘avoiding processed foods (PF), especially ultra-processed foods (UPF)’ and selecting minimally PF to address obesity and chronic disease. However, NOVA categories are drawn using non-traditional views of food processing with additional criteria including a number of ingredients, added sugars, and additives. Comparison of NOVA's definition and categorisation of PF with codified and published ones shows limited congruence with respect to either definition or food placement into categories. While NOVA studies associate PF with decreased nutrient density, other classifications find nutrient-dense foods at all levels of processing. Analyses of food intake data using NOVA show UPF provide much added sugars. Since added sugars are one criterion for designation as UPF, such a proof demonstrates a tautology. Avoidance of foods deemed as UPF, such as wholegrain/enriched bread and cereals or flavoured milk, may not address obesity but could decrease intakes of folate, calcium and dietary fibre. Consumer understanding and implementation of NOVA have not been tested. Neither have outcomes been compared with vetted patterns, such as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which base food selection on food groups and nutrient contribution. NOVA fails to demonstrate the criteria required for dietary guidance: understandability, affordability, workability and practicality. Consumers’ confusion about definitions and food categorisations, inadequate cooking and meal planning skills and scarcity of resources (time, money), may impede adoption and success of NOVA. Research documenting that NOVA can be implemented by consumers and has nutrition and health outcomes equal to vetted patterns is needed.


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Corresponding author: Julie Miller Jones, email


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