Why the Five-Ingredient Rule

During our “100 Days of Real Food Pledge” we avoided all packaged foods containing more than five ingredients as well as all refined grains, sugar, and deep-fried foods. We borrowed this rule directly from Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules. Here’s his take on this guideline:

“Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients. The specific number you adopt is arbitrary, but the more ingredients in a packaged food, the more highly processed it probably is. Note 1: A long list of ingredients in a recipe is not the same thing; that’s fine. Note 2: Some products now boast, somewhat deceptively, about their short ingredient lists. Häagen-Dazs has a new line of ice creamed called ‘five.’ Great–but it’s still ice cream. Same goes for the three-ingredient Tostitos corn chips advertised by Frito-Lay–okay, but they’re still corn chips.”

One thing we struggled with during our 100-day pledge was the occasional food product that had six or seven or even eight ingredients that were all “whole” or what we would consider to be “real food.” What about a bag of trail mix that contains seven different kinds of nuts and seeds? We would avoid products like that mainly because we didn’t want to jeopardize our pledge, although, truthfully, that bag of trail mix would probably be perfectly fine. The thing is, when you are creating “rules” for the masses you just have to draw the line somewhere. And if this rule gets people to start reading and scrutinizing the ingredient labels on their food then our mission is accomplished.


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46 thoughts on “Why the Five-Ingredient Rule”

  1. You may have missed the part where he states that the specific number of ingredients you adopt is arbitrary. The point he was making with that number is that the more ingredients that are listed on a nutrition label, the more likely they are to be preservatives and chemicals. If you have a package of trail mix that includes 8 different types of nuts and seeds, you are still eating whole foods ( and a lot more nutritionally beneficial), than if you limit yourself to 5 whole ingredients per item.

    Rather than counting the number of ingredients in the product, you really would do just fine to look at what is listed. If you don’t recognize it and can’t pronounce it, or it reminds you of something you might use in a high school science class, it’s probably not good for you. There are of course exceptions.

    I understand the 5 ingredient rule may just be a simple way to get people who are too lazy to educate themselves to eat less processed or chemically laden foods, but in the long run it does a disservice to those people.

    If a person who was totally uninformed about whole foods before reading your blog picked up a carton of fresh, chopped fruit, and saw that there were 8 fruits listed in the ingredients, and they then thought it would be off limits to them while eating a “5 or less” whole foods diet, they would be thoroughly missing out on nutritional value. The same example can be made for many store-bought items that contain more than 5 whole-food ingredients per package.

    I do disagree with the negative connotation he gives to items such as ice cream and corn chips. Those items absolutely can be made with completely whole, healthy food items. With those and other “snack” or “dessert” items you do need to carefully examine the ingredient list for those unrecognizable preservative and chemical names though. Your best bet is just to make them yourself! By using blended frozen bananas, coconut milk, pure organic cocao, honey, nuts and seeds, fresh or dried fruit, and you can make any number of delicious, healthy ice cream flavors.

  2. Im 55 and having been eating only real food since January 1, 2015. I’ve lost 48 pounds and feel fabulous! I only purchase prepackaged foods that contain 5 ingredients or less.

    1. Okay, please help me. I rarely ever see food items that have only 5 ingredients or less. Where do you shop, and please give me some examples.

  3. I plan to do a 5 ingredient or less challenge during October 2015 (maybe longer!). I am 45. I have encouraged my fily and friends on Facebook to join me, or at least support me!

  4. 2 adults primarily and 2 children 6 and 11 part-time. I won’t say it happens 100 % of the time but I strive to keep us in real food and things with five ingredients all the time. No it doesnt always work, when grocery shopping I usually hit the Meat seafood and produce departments and one or two aisles and I’m done lol. Makes some things harder other things a lot easier, lol. Thank you for all your help.

  5. Myself primarily. My husband has challenged swallowing after a stroke a year ago. While he depends on therapeutic nutrition through a feeding tube at night, he does eat about 300-400 calories per day for the joy of eating & the socialness of eating.

    So, my unprocessed choices are bringing good foods into our house and into our fridge & that makes my husband’s choices much better as well.

    It’s all good.

  6. 2 adults one 2.5 year old, one 1.5 year old. Plan to do your 14 week pledge but continue to only eat ral food indefinitely!

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