Comment added August 21, 2010: For some reason, search engines seem to send a lot of people to this post when they search for my name. I consider this to be one of my least interesting and important posts. If you’re going to read one thing I wrote, please consider reading any of the posts in the “Important Posts” menu at the top of the sidebar instead of this.
One of the things I didn’t like about In Defense of Food was that it ended with a number of concise rules for deciding what to eat. It seemed to me that much of Michael Pollan’s work was a warning about what can happen when we don’t think about our food choices (not to mention that Pollan wrote in the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing”). I could see that having a few short rules was better than eating anything the supermarket had to offer, but it still seemed like a weak substitute for information.
Of all the rules Pollan presents, the one I have the most trouble comprehending is the suggestion that we not eat anything with more than five ingredients. While some products with long ingredient lists have things I’d choose to avoid, it seems to me that the problem there is the choice of ingredients rather than the quantity.
Now it would seem that the five-ingredient rule has become a target of marketers. Joe Kita calls this the Worst New Health Trend.
Kita’s article focuses on Haagen-Dazs Five ice creams, which (as the name indicates) have only five ingredients. As the title of his article suggests, Kita is unimpressed, pointing out that it’s still calorie rich and high in fat and sugar.
Compare Five to the can of lentil soup in my cabinet. I’ve had it for many months. It’s something of a relic from a time when I ate more packaged foods, but I keep it around just in case I should find myself too busy to prepare something else. With a whopping nine ingredients (organic lentils, filtered water, organic celery, organic carrots, organic onions, organic potatoes, organic extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, spices), it easily fails the five-ingredient test. It’s certainly not a perfect food; it’s a bit too salty for my tastes, and I would much prefer a fresh soup with organic vegetables from the local farmers’ market. It’s still probably one of the better meals I’ve seen in a package, though.
Kita asks for Pollan’s take on Five:
“The food industry is incredibly clever at transforming any criticism of its practices into a new way to sell us more food,” says Pollan. And in that, he is 100 percent correct. Never believe anything you read on the front of the packaging or hear on a commercial.
I don’t completely agree with Pollan, though. It seems to me that it’s a certain oversimplification in his proposed solution that enables this kind of marketing. While having a few guidelines like Pollan’s is certainly better than making largely uninformed decisions, it’s not the same as making thoughtful and informed decisions. Therefore, I find it entirely unsurprising to see that the five-ingredient rule has spawned a new marketing niche for the food industry to exploit.
Of course, some people don’t want to think much about their food choices, and the five-ingredient rule might do them some good. We can’t know everything there is to know about each of our meals, so we all have to find a level of knowledge with which we’re comfortable. Others might insist on knowing more about their food than I do. After all, I don’t know where or how the lentils or vegetables in my can of soup were grown, how the soup was made, or how it found its way to the store. Even so, I’d much prefer that lentil soup, with all nine of its ingredients, to Haagen-Dazs Five.