Prof. Dr. med David Fäh, Berner Fachhochschule

Are you interested in your diet? Great, have you heard of the NOVA score? The NOVA score measures the level of processing of foods on a scale of 1 “minimally-processed” to 4 “ultra-processed.” Studies have shown that NOVA-4 foods contribute disproportionately to weight gain. For a healthy diet, it is generally recommended to minimize the amount of NOVA-4 foods.

Only very few products today already display the NOVA-Score on the packaging. The new NOVA-Score widget (beta version) from BitsaboutMe, which was developed together with nutrition experts from the Bern University of Applied Sciences, therefore automatically calculates the share of NOVA-4 products in the total food purchase based on your receipts and also immediately shows you the products that you can replace with less processed products to improve your score. By the way, the Swiss average is about [26%]. Are you already better than average?

The NOVA score is an important complement to the more popular Nutri-Score, which you can also get on BitsaboutMe. The Nutri-Score takes into account nutrients like protein, dietary fiber or salt and saturated fat to rate a product as good or less recommendable. However, this score does not take into account how a food is produced or how natural it is. Studies show that the degree of processing of what we eat and drink influences our health, regardless of its composition.

Why you should also pay attention to the processing

Today we live in an environment that demands few calories, but offers many around the clock. Accordingly, the new properties that arise from processing can also bring us disadvantages. In particular, so-called “ultra-processed” also “ultra-processed foods”, UPF are considered problematic. The main reasons are the high density of calories, the relatively poor satiety properties in combination with increased attractiveness. The nutrients that make up the food are irrelevant. Thus, the health effect of dietary fiber (dietary fiber) depends primarily on the degree of processing rather than the amount (fiber content). Fiber from minimally processed legumes, for example, results in a delayed blood sugar response. This relieves the burden on organs such as the liver and pancreas, which are involved in blood sugar regulation. However, the property also explains why lentils, chickpeas & co. provide excellent satiety in relation to the calories they contain. In contrast, adding the same amount of fiber to “ultra-processed” breakfast flakes does not slow the appearance of glucose in the blood. “Ultra-processing” foods prevents some of the digestive task that demands energy from the body and makes us feel full. In fact, a highly publicized study showed that for the same nutrient composition, subjects who ate UPF consumed about 500 more calories per day than the comparison group who consumed only minimally processed foods. In the study, overweight people gained one kilogram only due to the level of processing after consuming UPF for two weeks, while the control group, which consumed minimally processed foods with identical nutrient composition, lost one kilogram.

Consumption of minimally (red) and ultra-processed (blue) foods with identical composition.

What is NOVA and how are UPF defined?

To ensure that researchers and consumers understand “ultra-processing” in the same way, scientists have proposed a classification. In this so-called NOVA classification, the highest category (4) corresponds to UPF. In addition to the numerous processing steps, the addition of certain substances is characteristic, such as colorants, flavors or flavor enhancers, but also substances that change the volume, consistency, homogeneity or moisture of the product. The production of these class 4 products cannot be imitated at home. The NOVA definition is rough and also not universally applicable. However, alternatives based on this definition already exist to help consumers better distinguish between products. Typical UPFs include fast food and convenience products, but also baked goods and confectionery, snacks, meat products, breakfast cereals, bars, some dairy products and many beverages.

How do I reduce UPF in my diet?

In addition to conscious purchasing, everyday life offers further potential for reducing UPF. The following tips offer support:

  • The base of your diet should be low- or unprocessed products, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, quinoa
  • Use the BitsaboutMe app to increase the amount of NOVA-1 products you eat.
  • Buy foods whose origins and production you know, go for products that have been around for a long time
  • Don’t be tempted to buy by labels, such as “sugarfree”, tooth man, aha!, vegan, gluten-free….
  • Look carefully at “green” Nutriscore A and B products, 20-30% of them belong to NOVA-4, so they are UPF.
  • Take food processing into your own hands if possible
  • Look for a short ingredient list: ideally less than five 5 ingredients
  • Long shelf life indicates strong processing, especially for products that do not need to be refrigerated
  • When it comes to processed products, fermented ones are preferable, as this process is less problematic
  • When eating out, prefer cuisines that use little processing, e.g. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese

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