the Nova classification

Towards less processed produce: focus on the Nova classification

Bernard Lavallée, nutritionist, author of "N’avalez pas tout ce qu’on vous dit" ("Don't swallow everything they tell you"), and specialist in communication on nutrition, discussed the topic of Nova classification at SIAL Paris 2018.

Bernard Lavallée
Bernard Lavallée

In a world where part of the population is obese while another part suffers from malnutrition, the question of food processing is of capital importance. As consumers, what can we eat? Which food trends are to be avoided, and which to be adopted?

The age of food concerns

Havas Worldwide questioned 12,000 people in 37 industrialised countries to discuss local food trends and habits. The conclusion was as follows: consumers are unsure, they have less confidence, and they no longer know what choices to make when it comes to food. In 50 years, our concerns have shifted from issues of quantity to issues of quality.

Three hypotheses to explain this concern


1. Nutritional science has developed a great deal

Thousands of studies have been published, and yet all this generated knowledge (about bacteria, germs, nutrients, etc.) has led us to conclude that, in fact, we know next to nothing about their effects on our constitutions.

2. We no longer eat like our ancestors did

Bass with lemon slices and spice
Bass with lemon slices and spice

For most of the history of mankind we ate the same food as our grandparents. The religions even provided food and nutritional advice. In the past 50-60 years, we have rejected our traditional culture and heritage in favour of industrialised food.

We are also starting to take account of nutritional advice linked to the latest discoveries. A foodstuff that seemed to be beneficial may become risky, such as the seabass until the 1950s, which was declared dangerous by the government, practically stopping dead its consumption.

3. Too much information can get in the way of what we eat

Bernard Lavallée depicts information that is deformed, amplified and, above all, excessive: "Consumers feel lost, because they're getting far too much information! And even if we only consider all these different trends, it's obvious that they can't all be true simultaneously," as is demonstrated by the current trends of veganism versus the Palaeolithic diet.

"It is what we might call a 'nutritional cacophony', or, according to the French sociologist, Claude Fischer, behaviour that may have two different consequences depending on the information received, and in contradiction with our enjoyment.

Eight arguments against nutritionism, to keep anxiety at bay

Apple tree


Nutritionism is responsible for this cacophony. The fact of deconstructing foodstuffs into their component parts, of dwelling on the nutrients and not perceiving food in the round, is problematic. We are dependent on nutritional specialists, as we tend to assume that we know nothing about nutrition. 




And yet: 

  1. Unlike the nutrients that are analysed, our time is not spent exclusively in a laboratory. Taking a pill with raspberry extract is not the same as eating raspberries.
  2. The problems of health in our society revolve around diabetes, obesity and cancer, whereas nutritional science tends to treat deficiencies such as scurvy (vitamin deficiencies). There is a lot of confusion about what vitamins do and what the reality of their action scope is.
  3. Some foodstuff combinations (banana/potassium; milk/calcium) are to be avoided. We do not have the headspace for these kinds of considerations these days.
  4. Foods are alive. Depending how an apple tree is grown for example, and even between several apples on the same branch, the nutrient content may differ massively.
  5. The food that we swallow is not all globally absorbed, such as walnuts, almonds, etc. In the form of butter or oil, for the same quantity of almonds, the calorific quality will differ.
  6. Foodstuffs interact with one another. For example, plant iron combined with vitamin D boosts iron take-up. Every foodstuff has hundreds of molecules that we cook alongside thousands of molecules at the same time, and we do not know how they interact.
  7. Processing can modify the effect of nutrients.
  8. The power of vitamins comes from dealing with deficiencies: yet this is not a problem of public health.

What is the Nova classification?


Olive oil


The Nova classification defines four categories of food:

  1. Fresh foods, foods with little processing: parts of plants or animals
  2. Culinary ingredients that we use in cooking: sugar, honey, salt, oil, butter, etc.
  3. Processed foods: taking fresh foodstuffs but adding culinary items (e.g., bread, cheese, nuts, canned fish, etc.)
  4. Ultra-processed foods: represented by little or no fresh foodstuffs with a large quantity of sugar, salt, fat, refined flour, additives, colourings, artificial flavours, etc. These include the likes of hamburgers, sweets, sodas, ice creams, etc.

In Quebec, one in 2 calories consumed belong to this category 4 of the Nova classification, and the United States lead the world.

Fat: do we ban it?

Gluten free product


The error made in the past was in finding where to pin the blame, as testified by the war on fat over the years. Consequently, there has been a booming market in low-fat, light, fat-free, etc., products.

Yet in spite of this, fat needs to be replaced and its dosage reviewed, since it remains good for our bodies. There has been lots of - too much - added sugar, and low-fat products are not necessarily better. The quality of our food is getting worse. One of the first countries to have understood this is Brazil, the first country in 2014 to use the Nova classification to produce a food guide for its population.



What do we need to remember?

One of the challenges of tomorrow is to provide information about the food consumed. We need to try and stop focusing on star nutrients, which offer short-term benefits but force us to neglect others. The objective is to favour fresh produce it its totality, to make it fun and accessible, so that it wins over a growing proportion of consumers.

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