Unlike many of the trumped-up, politically correct “risk factors” we are constantly warned about by so-called health “experts,” eating processed foods is the real danger to your health.
In fact, new research now links a diet high in ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of developing any number of chronic diseases as well as a higher all-cause mortality risk. (Which means a higher risk of death from ANY and ALL causes.)
So, today, let’s spend some time talking about NOVA—a handy classification system that can help you identify which foods you should regularly enjoy and which you should avoid…
NOVA system makes grocery shopping a breeze
Unfortunately, 90 percent of the current U.S. food supply consists of processed foods. And whole, unprocessed foods make up as little as 10 percent.
Though, on a positive note, according to the latest farm report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the percentage of whole, unprocessed foods has increased from 5 percent just a few years back. (I receive this report, because, like millions of other Americans, I fill out a USDA questionnaire every two years, since our small-scale, organic operation in Maryland qualifies as a “farm.”)
But now, you can use a handy food index called NOVA to help you make decisions about your weekly shopping. The NOVA index sorts foods into four categories based on the amount of processing. The lower the NOVA score, the healthier the food. You can even download the “Open Food Facts” app on your phone to look up the NOVA score for just about any type of food (or food product).
Granted, the scientists who developed the NOVA index used a somewhat blunt instrument to make their classifications. And I’ve found that they misplaced some healthy, whole, unprocessed foods—such as traditionally crafted cheeses. However, for the most part, it’s a useful tool. (You can learn more about the NOVA system at world.openfoodfacts.org/nova.)
Now, let’s go into some detail about the four categories in the NOVA index…
Keep it simple: Stick with whole, unprocessed foods
The NOVA index places foods into one of these four categories:
1.) Ultra-processed foods are manufactured and mass-produced in industrial factories as ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat products. They contain a long list of ingredients that were broken down from natural foods and treated with chemical additives, colors, glazes, and thickeners to make them “ultra-palatable” and addictive.
Some of these foods are fried before they’re packed in cans or wrappers. They may also contain artificial ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, fake fats, and protein “isolates.” Some examples are packaged bakery items, chips, candy, chicken nuggets, granola bars, non-Kosher hot dogs, margarine, soft drinks, so-called “energy” drinks, and yogurts with added sugars and/or flavors. Fast food items fall into this category as well.
2.) Processed foods, like ultra-processed foods, are manufactured and mass-produced in industrial factories. However, they contain fewer added ingredients than ultra-processed foods—usually two or three. And they usually consist of whole foods with some basic added ingredients—like salt, oil, or sugar. Some examples include packaged canned fruits, canned vegetables, and some breads.
This category also included salted nuts and cheese. But remember, as I mentioned above, the developers of NOVA used a blunt instrument to make their classifications. So, unprocessed nuts and cheese belong squarely in the whole food category. Just make sure to opt for whole nuts in the shell (they’ll last longer) or nuts without add sugar, salt, or artificial additives. As far as cheese goes, opt for high-quality, traditional, organic cheeses made in the European style. (So-called American-style “cheese products” do, indeed, belong in the ultra-processed category.)
3.) Processed culinary ingredients include products derived from whole foods—such as olive oil, butter, and lard. This category also contains honey, sugar cane, syrup, and vinegar. These items are often used in the cooking of unprocessed, whole foods.
4.) Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are the best of the best. They include edible plants, herbs, fruits, vegetables, seeds, roots (including fungi, like mushrooms, and algae), as well as fish and meat.
These foods come in their natural states—without any added ingredients or processing. You can purchase them fresh or frozen. Examples include dried legumes (beans, peas, lentils), fresh or dried mushrooms, full-fat dairy (like eggs, milk, and plain yogurt), meat, spices, and seafood. (*I would also place nuts and traditional cheeses in this category.)
Of course, the NOVA index doesn’t go into the importance of avoiding genetically modified produce, dairy, and meats. But, as I always advise, make sure you opt for organic produce as well as organic dairy and meat that comes from free-range, grass-fed and -finished sources (which by definition, cannot be pesticide-dependent GMOs).
When it comes to fish and seafood, make sure to always choose wild-caught instead of farm-raised varieties. (Almost all the salmon from the Atlantic Ocean is farm-raised. So make sure it comes from somewhere in the Pacific.)
Of course, fish is a wonderful source of essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. And it ranks the highest among foods on the “satiety index,” meaning it satisfies your hunger and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Plus, recent research conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists shows that the human brain probably did not fully develop until early humans started eating more fish and seafood. (Though, remember, most people don’t consume enough fish and seafood weekly and should still take a daily, high-quality fish oil supplement.)
In the end, you don’t need to waste your time counting calories, sugars, sodium, or even carbs. Simply avoid ultra-processed foods and stick with all the whole, delicious, unprocessed foods in a Mediterranean-type diet, including:
- Full-fat dairy, including butter, eggs, cheeses, and yogurt. (Remember, in the Mediterranean, they eat cheese at each and every meal. But U.S. health experts typically overlook that point because it doesn’t fit their nonsensical, “anti-fat” narrative.)
- Wild-caught fish and seafood.
- Grass-fed and -finished, free-range, organic beef, chicken, and especially lamb, which has the best nutritional profile of all meats.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Six to eight servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day.
- Alcohol in moderation.
You’ll find these foods located at the perimeter of the store, as they typically require refrigeration. Meanwhile, all of the processed foods will be stored in the center aisles.
P.S. Eating a nutritious, balanced, healthy, Mediterranean-style diet will keep you healthy for years to come. In fact, it can even counter the ill effects of excess weight on your lifespan, as I explain in the current issue of Insiders’ Cures (“The one diet that provides health benefits all around the world”). Not yet a subscriber? Click here to become one today!