Focusing on Food Labels: A Short Ingredient List Has Become Something To Brag About

simply-pb-packageIngredient lists on food labels are shrinking.  Have you noticed?  Now it’s hip to have the fewest as possible.

That’s the topic of my latest article A guide to food labels in the Chicago Tribune.

When it comes to packaged food, a short ingredient list has become something to brag about.

Food author and activist Michael Pollan has been a major champion of this concept. In his frequently cited “rules of eating,” Pollan suggests avoiding products with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

If you can’t say it, don’t eat it, he advises. Or if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, skip it.
Food manufacturers appear to be taking notice. Today, it’s all about few and familiar ingredients.


Natural, pure and clean are the new demands.  It’s part of the simplicity trend I’ve previously written about.

First, it was Five, the new line of Haagen-Dazs ice cream that’s made with only five ingredients — including well-known kitchen staples (milk, ice cream, sugar and eggs).  Then, Pillsbury introduced Simply cookies that are based on a similar premise.  “Made just like you would make at home, same ingredients, same process.

Many food companies are scrambling to simplify ingredient lists and find naturally sourced alternatives to create what has been dubbed a “clean label.”  And when they do, they proudly declare “no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives” on the front of the package.  That has become one of the most popular claims made by new foods and beverages, according to the market research firm Mintel.

In this era of fresh, organic and whole foods, we’ve become a national fearful of food additives,” said dietitian Elisa Zied, a New York-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

“People want to know what they’re eating,” she said.

Zied does suggest looking for foods with the fewest ingredients possible, but she said it’s just a rule of thumb — and one that can be broken.  “If you don’t have food allergies, choose yourfive battles,” she said.

I also interviewed food scientist Barry Swanson, a professor of food science at Washington State University and a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists.  He told me there was a lot of confusion over ingredients…

“Consumers think any ingredient with two syllables is dangerous.  Yet many of the long words are added nutrients (such as ascorbic acid or vitamin C) and natural compounds, including extracts from fruit or other food sources that act as antioxidants to preserve freshness. All ingredients are added for a reason, and they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t safe,” he said.

Even so, many people are concerned about food additives.  That’s why I put together a guide to help translate the terms you might see on a food label and learn why these ingredients are added to foods.  Check out the article to learn more.  Or check out two other excellent resources:

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