- NOVA classification of food was identified by Professor Carlos Monteiro
- NOVA classification categories food into 4 groups based on the processing
- Ultra-processed food has little to no real food and is highly unhealthy
New Delhi: On August 30, in his monthly radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about the importance of a nutritious diet and called for ‘eat nutritious food and stay healthy during the nutrition month’. PM Modi advised citizens to include local food grains in their diet and said, “There are six different seasons in our country, different regions produce diverse crops according to the respective climate. Therefore, it is very important that according to the season of a particular region, a well-balanced and nutrient rich, diet plan should be drafted to include local food grains, fruits and vegetables cultivated there. For example, Millets including coarse grains like Ragi or Finger Millet and Jowar or Sorghum, are very beneficial nutritious food.”
Taking the idea of ‘local food grains’ forward, Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest in India (NAPi), a national think tank and the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) have jointly launched a new campaign in India that aims at reducing the consumption of unhealthy ultra-processed foods by the people of all categories and age groups.
Together, the two groups have called the Ministry of Health and FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) to adopt the NOVA (means new) classification of foods.
What Is NOVA Classification Of Foods?
NOVA is the food classification that categorises foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing, rather than in terms of nutrients. When obesity in Brazilian adults went up from 7.5 per cent in 2002 to 17.5 per cent in 2013, Professor Carlos Monteiro from University of Sao Paulo, and his team researched their dietary patterns. They found that consumption of processed foods made people eat more, and led to increased obesity and type-2 diabetes. This was happening in spite of the fact that people were buying less sugar and oil. The researchers also noticed an increase in the consumption of highly processed or ultra-processed, ready to eat, sugary and packaged food products.
Following this, Professor Carlos Monteiro and his team developed the NOVA food classification which categories food into four groups, based on the processing.
NOVA Classification Of Food According To Its Processing
Group 1: Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods
These are real foods like edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, eggs, milk). It also includes vegetables and fruits like carrots, potato, onion, banana, and grains (wheat, rice, oats, barley, millets, ragi, corn), raw chicken or nuts. These are eaten as boiled, cooled, pasteurized, roasted, crushed, ground, fermented, fried or frozen. For example, fermenting the milk makes it into yoghurt. These food items are prepared domestically not industrially processed.
Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients
These are obtained directly from group one or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and spray drying. These are used in cooking and seasoning to make foods delicious. Examples are salt, sugar, oil and butter from milk, ground spices, salted butter, iodised salt, and vinegar figure in this group, explains the document titled ‘The Unseen Dangers Of Ultra-processed Food’ issued by NAPi and BPNI.
Group 3: Processed foods
Processed foods are also derived from group one and are prepared by adding sugar, salt, oil. The sugar and salt content in processed foods determine how unhealthy they are. It majorly includes fruits preserved in sugar syrup (murabba), vegetables preserved in salt water or oil (pickles), simple cheese made from milk, canned fruits or veggies, among others.
Processing of food increases its durability or modifies its taste. Indian sweets and traditional salted snacks like mathadi also belong here. Alcoholic drinks like beer and wine falls in this group, states NAPi and BPNI.
Group 4: Ultra-processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are the unhealthiest of the lot as these contain little to no proportion of real foods. These are produced in the factories and mostly sold as ‘packaged food’ or ‘ready to eat’ anytime anywhere foods.
The processing includes carbonating, firming, whipping, bulking and anti-bulking, and de-foaming. They have typically five or even more ingredients. They contain at least one additive that we don’t ever use in the kitchen. These ingredients may be sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives. Casein, lactose, whey, and gluten, hydrogenated oils, hydrolysed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high fructose corn syrup are only found in ultra-processed foods. Additives also include dyes and other colours, colour stabilisers, emulsifiers, flavours, and non-sugar sweeteners. These make foods intensely palatable, explains NAPi and BPNI.
Some of the common examples of ultra-processed foods are packaged baby milk, cereal, instant soups, noodles, packaged breads, carbonated drinks, packaged fruit juices, health or energy drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, ice-creams, yoghurt with added artificial sweeteners chocolates, biscuits, cakes, protein bars, and others.
Talking about the consequences of consuming UPFs and its health impact, Dr Arun Gupta, convener at NAPi said,
Available scientific evidence reveals that 10 per cent increase in the consumption of UPFs increases the chances of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer by approximately 10 per cent. In children, obesity and asthma are higher in those consuming UPFs.
National Institute of Health conducted a small scale study under which participants were given ultra-processed food and unprocessed food, each for two weeks. The ultra-processed and unprocessed meals had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates, and participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted. The study found that on the ultra-processed diet, people ate about 500 calories more per day than they did on the unprocessed diet. They also ate faster on the ultra-processed diet and gained weight, whereas they lost weight on the unprocessed diet.
According to Dr Gupta, intensely palatable nature of the UPFs makes an individual consume it more.
How Ultra Processed Food Has Taken Over Unprocessed And Natural Food
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of birth. After six months, breastfeeding has to be complemented with a variety of adequate, safe and nutrient-dense foods. According to the experts from BPNI, milk powder and infant formula have replaced exclusive breastfeeding.
In the later years of life, drinks, infant cereals, chocolates, ice creams, chips, and other junk food take the place of fruits and vegetables, cereals and pulses, milk and milk products.
“When my son was young he would refuse to go to school without buying a packet of chips. We would also give in to his request thinking he is a child but now we are facing the repercussions of it as he doesn’t like eating most of the vegetables”, tells Rekha Barnwal from Ghaziabad.
This is where adopting NOVA Food Classification comes in, a policy that can change the way we deal with our food systems. Periodic monitoring of food consumption patterns would also be required, says Keshav Desiraju, former Health Secretary and chair of NAPi.
How NOVA Classification Can Help In Deciding What To Eat?
According to Dr Gupta, the NOVA classification of food helps us in making informed choices. For instance, both Poha and bread are breakfast options but knowing that home cooked Poha is unprocessed or minimally processed than bread will aid in taking better decisions. Dr Gupta shares some general recommendations for healthy eating:
1. Eat real foods of group 1 and 2 to boost immunity and to beat obesity. This will help beat COVID-19 or similar infections.
2. Check if the food is ultra-processed, it will help decide whether or not to eat or give to your children.
3. Use processed culinary ingredients in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations.
4. Limit the use of processed foods. Consume them in small amounts as part of meals that is based on real or minimally processed foods.
5. Avoid ultra-processed food products as they are nutritionally unbalanced. UPFs include additives, emulsifiers, sweeteners which UFPs palatable and in turn people consume it in excess. UFPs may appear easy to make and eat but they don’t provide nutrition.
6. Don’t be misled by what is advertised about food, be wary of information from industry.
Identifying ultra-processed foods is easy by simply watching food labels and can be part of the guidelines followed by local language campaigns to educate people about UPF consumption and its harmful impact, said Dr Gupta.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.