Identifying and Estimating Ultraprocessed Food Intake in the US NHANES According to the Nova Classification System of Food Processing

Eurídice Martínez Steele, Lauren E. O'Connor, Filippa Juul, Neha Khandpur, Larissa Galastri Baraldi, Carlos A. Monteiro, Niyati Parekh, Kirsten A. Herrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The degree of food processing may be an important dimension of diet in how it relates to health outcomes. A major challenge is standardizing food processing classification systems for commonly used datasets. Objectives: To standardize and increase transparency in its application, we describe the approach used to classify foods and beverages according to the Nova food processing classification in the 24-h dietary recalls from the 2001–2018 cycles of What We Eat in America (WWEIA), NHANES, and investigate variability and potential for Nova misclassification within WWEIA, NHANES 2017–2018 data via various sensitivity analyses. Methods: First, we described how the Nova classification system was applied to the 2001–2018 WWEIA, NHANES data using the reference approach. Second, we calculated the percentage energy from Nova groups [1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, 2: processed culinary ingredients, 3: processed foods, and 4: ultraprocessed foods (UPFs)] for the reference approach using day 1 dietary recall data from non-breastfed participants aged ≥1 y from the 2017–2018 WWEIA, NHANES. We then conducted 4 sensitivity analyses comparing potential alternative approaches (e.g., opting for more vs. less degree of processing for ambiguous items) to the reference approach, to assess how estimates differed. Results: The energy contribution of UPFs using the reference approach was 58.2% ± 0.9% of the total energy; unprocessed or minimally processed foods contributed 27.6% ± 0.7%, processed culinary ingredients contributed 5.2% ± 0.1%, and processed foods contributed 9.0% ± 0.3%. In sensitivity analyses, the dietary energy contribution of UPFs ranged from 53.4% ± 0.8% to 60.1% ± 0.8% across alternative approaches. Conclusions: We present a reference approach for applying the Nova classification system to WWEIA, NHANES 2001–2018 data to promote standardization and comparability of future research. Alternative approaches are also described, with total energy from UPFs differing by ∼6% between approaches for 2017–2018 WWEIA, NHANES.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)225-241
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Nutrition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • 24-hour recalls
  • Nova
  • degree of processing
  • dietary intake
  • ultraprocessed

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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