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.
Foodfacts.com has observed that 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 nation fearful of food additives, said dietitian Elisa Zied, a New York-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Pure, clean and natural are the new demands.
“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 your battles,” she said.
Barry Swanson, a professor of food science at Washington State University, agrees.
“Consumers think any ingredient with two syllables is dangerous,” said Swanson, a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. 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 and confused about food additives. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you translate the terms you might see on a food label and learn why these ingredients are added to foods.