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The 5-Ingredient Rule

To eat in a way that is better for you as well as the planet, read labels and avoid anything with more than five familiar-sounding ingredients, advises Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.

To eat sanely, you don’t need to know how to read everything on a label, though it’s easy enough. It’s not as easy, though, as this rule (originally “mandated” by Michael Pollan and others): avoid anything with more than five familiar-sounding ingredients.

Before going further, it’s worth mentioning that, applied strictly, this would eliminate conventionally raised meat from your diet, if it were labeled. Because if you listed the ingredients that went into producing it, the label might include alfalfa cubes, barley silage, dried cattle manure, blood meal, coffee grounds, chicken fat, corn and cob meal, ammonium sulfate (for fertilizer), hydrolyzed feather meal, ground limestone, cooked municipal garbage, linseed meal solvent, oat straw, potato waste, dried poultry manure, soybeans, wheat, antibiotics, and any pesticides or herbicides used in the corn and soybean fields, just to name a few.

Meat isn’t labeled but most packaged food is, and though the five-ingredient rule won’t eliminate all junk food from your diet, it will go a long way toward eliminating junk food, and it will simplify your shopping.

Of course there are levels of “junk”: there are potato chips made with two ingredients (potatoes and oil) and ice creams made with only four or five. These, of course, fall into the category of treats. But it’s the chips product, and faux-fat ice cream, and frozen dinners, and all the other stuff made with 15 or 20 ingredients that you should pass up altogether, and forever: there is nothing good about them, even in limited quantities.

There are a few ingredients that I try not to eat even if the product otherwise passes muster. These include hydrogenated anything, monosodium glutamate (sometimes hidden behind terms like “natural flavorings” or “spices”), high fructose corn syrup, and anything I’ve never seen — which includes about 80 percent of the ingredients on junk food labels. (Pasteurized processed cheese product? Guar gum? Silicon dioxide?)

If the package, jar, or box in your hand passes the five-ingredient rule, and you still want to read the label for calories, protein, fiber, and so on, more power to you. But as long as you’reeating plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and a small amount of meat, fish, and dairy food, you’ll be in fine shape nutrient-wise.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (Copyright © 2009 by Mark Bittman), is also author of How to Cook Everything and other cookbooks, and of the weekly New York Times column, The Minimalist. His work has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines, and he is a regular on the Today show. Mr. Bittman has hosted two public television series and has appeared in a third.

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