“Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce,” is, according to Michael Pollan‘s Food Rules, a pretty easy way to prevent your diet from going off the rails. And while focusing on simple, high-quality ingredients is definitely a great way to frame a healthy diet, unfortunately it’s also become a genius way to market junk food. Because while Pollan’s common sense advice has become the bible for health-inclined consumers, it’s also become the bible for advertisers and food manufacturers. Which means…even his dummy-proof rules are getting more complicated–including judging a food by its ingredients.
The length of an ingredients list is still pretty telling; many processed foods contain upwards of 30, 40, even 50 ingredients; most of which are preservatives, artificial flavoring, artificial colors, and other chemical products that most of us wouldn’t exactly classify as “food.” So, when you do buy packaged foods (which, ideally, isn’t most of the time), checking out the ingredients list to make sure it’s not too long is a helpful rule of thumb.
But packaged food producers and advertisers have also caught onto the trick. This is good, insofar as it means consumers are getting slightly fewer chemicals in their meals, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the remaining ingredients are good for you; in many cases, they’re not.
Bruce Bradley made an excellent case for this on the Fooducate Blog today, where he argued his case against Land-O-Lakes’ Butter plus Canola Oil; a product that was developed to please customers who wanted a margarine-like spread, without all the chemicals. He points out that, while the product only contains butter, canola oil, and salt, it’s still full of hidden “ingredients”—like growth hormones and intensely processed oil from GMO rapeseed—that aren’t nearly as wholesome as the ads imply.
The moral of the story? Pretty ads that replace words like “organic,” “non-GMO” and “fresh” with “simple” and “natural” aren’t a good way to determine the nutritional value of your food. Here are a few other examples of “simple” junk food that proves not all foods with few ingredients are good for you: