On short rules

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.

5 Comments »

  1. Colinski said

    I dunno, perhaps Pollan assumes his readers are not stupid enough to think that his guideline would help one choose between markedly different things like soup and ice cream. I took his “5 ingredients” rule as a very loose guideline to help one choose between foods within the same category, like two loaves of bread, to use what I recall to be his main example in IDOF.

    That is to say, a very general rule of thumb for packaged foods, the item with the fewer ingredients tends to be the less processed one. I might have to re-read this book, but that’s exactly what I took away from his suggestion: this was to help choose the less-processed food item, the more traditional food item, and by his philosophy, the more healthful food item. Generally speaking, I would probably choose the Haagen-Daz Five over another ice cream with 20 ingredients (that is, if I still ate dairy products). I also recall that he makes it pretty clear that those rules of thumb are extremely loose, and merely food for thought. I for one found them very helpful as I was evaluating my food choices (a process which eventually led me to veganism; yes, Pollan, omnivore apologist though he may be, was instrumental in my becoming vegan).

    Honestly, I think you’re taking a good blog idea and stretching it to the point of nitpicking the smallest thing, seemingly to preserve the blog’s raison d’être.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I didn’t mean to compare the soup and the ice cream in the sense of somebody choosing whether to eat one and the other. The point is that it says something about the system of rules if it allows for something decidedly unhealthy and not something at least reasonably healthy. More broadly, the point of this post (and perhaps it was poorly expressed) was that a set of simple rules is not a substitute for information and consideration. While the simple rules are better than nothing, they still leave us vulnerable to marketing campaigns like what Haagen-Dazs or Lay’s is doing.

      Anyway, I actually think that Pollan’s set of rules would make more sense without the five-ingredient rule. You’re right that it makes no sense to compare soup to ice cream, but suppose we were comparing two soups. Would a soup with fewer vegetables be better than the 9-ingredient soup? It would have fewer ingredients. It’s true that a lot of unhealthy foods have a lot of ingredients, but I can’t think of any examples where I’d consider a food bad because it has a lot of ingredients and not because specific ingredients are objectionable. I could see where some people would find the rule helpful if they don’t want to bother reading long ingredient lists to find the bad ones, but it’s my view that more information leads to better decisions (even if it means reading the whole list).

      To be honest, I don’t sense all that much disagreement between us here. It seems that we both agree that the rules have some usefulness up to a point but that some thinking is still a good idea. Where we disagree, perhaps, is on whether that’s worth commenting on.

  2. I don’t think Adam’s picking nits at all. The trouble with the five ingredient rule isn’t that it’s bad, so much as it’s incomplete. Sour dough bread can be white flour, water, and starter. And french fries are potatoes, oil, and salt.

    Much better to be told what foods are really bad for you, and to make sure these foods don’t come in at #1 or #2 on the ingredient list.

  3. Truly Scrumptious said

    Agreed. It also irks me that some of his “unpronounceable” ingredients are just added vitamins (sometimes their role is to be a natural preservative, which is better than some other preserving ingredients). While adding vitamins indicates the item would be unhealthy in the sense that the producer had to add vitamins to make it healthier, in general I don’t have a problem with consuming vitamins and it’s disingenuous to imply that because they’re “unpronounceable” then they’re to be avoided. I heard him on the radio stumble over the full name of one of the B vitamins. [roll eyes]

    • Adam Merberg said

      That’s a good point. I think Pollan would say that it’s better to get that B vitamin from whole food sources rather than added to foods. However, the fact is that vitamin B1 supplements have saved thousands of lives from deficiencies in traditional diets. (See, for example, this somewhat dated article: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,814813,00.html)

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