The five levels of processed food
Introduced in 2009, the Nova system classifies processed foods into five categories: unprocessed, minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients and ultra-processed foods2. Here's what that means:
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are ingredients in their raw form, such as fruit, vegetables, chicken, nuts or seeds. Essentially, anything that hasn’t undergone alteration after it's been taken from nature.
Minimally processed foods have been altered slightly or 'cleaned'. This involves processes like fermenting, pasteurisation, drying, cooling or freezing. Dried herbs and spices, milk and frozen shellfish or meat all count.
Processed culinary ingredients are foods that have been extracted from their natural source, such as olive oil from olives, syrup extracted from maple trees or honey extracted from honeycomb.
Processed foods are 'versions of original foods' that have been altered to stay fresh for longer or to taste better. Think bacon, cured meats, wine, canned tuna and tomato extract.
Ultra-processed foods - a real health threat - are made either entirely from processed foods or formulated in laboratories. To put that into perspective, ultra-processed foods tend to be void of any unprocessed or minimally processed foods (number 1 of the Nova classification). The list includes chicken nuggets, hot dogs, some sausages, instant soups, confectionery, energy drinks, pre-prepared pizza and pasta dishes and breakfast cereals and bars.
For more information about supporting your vegan lifestyle, see our vegan advice hub.
1The Lancet Commission
Summary Report (2019). Healthy diets from sustainable food systems, Eatforum.org.
2NOVA. The star shines bright, World Nutrition Volume 7, Number 1-3, January-March 2016.