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”

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  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!

  7. I would like to try and take your challenge. I am vegan so I am on a good start, but I am not getting it right so I am in need of help. I think if I follow your plan I can do it!

  8. I know this has more than 5 ingredients but i would really like to know:
    when a food label has “contains less than 2% of the following” what does that mean? is the total amount of the following list less than 2% or is it less than 2% of each ingredient in that list?

  9. I have been following your blog for a while now and decided it’s time to make a change and make a real commitment to something that means a whole lot to me and for the love of my family. I pledge to be a real food consumer and be the positive example for my family for the next 100 days. We have 2 adults and 4 children in our family.

  10. Hi,I have food allergies to sulfites, and milk, I have to say away from processed foods but I have a had time finding snacks, like crackers ect I bake everything from scratch but sometimes I’m on the go and need to grab something fast, ant tips.

  11. First, you should say five or fewer (not less); watch out for the foods listed for their antinutrient profile:
    1. dried fruit
    2. toasted wheat bread (acrylamides)
    3. Triscuits — really? bad all around
    4. olives (acrylamides)
    5. processed cheese not ok
    6. beans- unless you soak away the phytic acid first

  12. I am learning a lot from your website. Thanks so much! Can you tell me why you add grape seed oil to the list of banned oils? We use expeller pressed (cold pressed) grape seed oil, which does not use chemical solvents in the process, and I was under the impression it was healthy for you. It is hard sorting through all the information out there to decipher what is healthy and what is not! Thank you.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Sarah. Grapeseed oil is high in Omega 6 fatty acid which is already said to be at too high of a level in our diets, so, we choose to avoid it. Jill

  13. Hi. New to all of this but trying. My kids LOVE shredded wheat cereal. I noticed you mentioned that and one other cereal on this list of items frequently purchased. Where do you find these two cereals? I can make pancakes, yogurt, oatmeal according to your guidelines and suggestions but have no idea how to make up for the cold cereal love in the morning. Any help would be great. Closest trader joes is an hour away so I’d like to make the most of a trip there when necessary.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Jenny. Arrowhead Mills makes some cereals with 5 ingredients or less as does the Earthfare brand. I believe the shredded wheat is Earthfare. Jill

  14. Wow. What a great site. How have I missed this. My oldest started kindergarten last week so we were looking for healthy lunchbox ideas. I have been wanting to try this for a while. Thank you for all your guidance and count us in. Me, hubby(who won’t like it but will eat it) and two hungry boys who generally eat what is put in front of them.

  15. I’m starting tomorrow! I have “training” for this for a couple of months so I have a pretty good list of options! One exception that I may have to make to the five incredient rule is Nutella! Not sure I can do without it.

  16. We are in, myself, husband and 2 kiddos. We can easily do ALMOST everything, except I have a VERY VERY picky 4 year old who will only eat his 100% whole wheat and cornmeal homemade waffles with 2 chocolate chips so we need a little leeway there. No chocolate chips = no breakfast! I am also trying to get my hubby to try new foods, especially vegetables.

  17. I had canned peas yesterday. Even those contained sugar. Couldn’t believe it. According to the 5 rule, ketchup is off the list….an probably a lot more food. That’s really depressing.

  18. I’m in (mostly) and I influence one husband and supply 1 baby and 1 toddler. I work, so I can’t even cook items with >5 ingredients (other than spices) without being late for mealtimes. And when I eat out, which is often, I tend to eat vegetarian, which tends result in less-bad (sometimes even good) choices.

  19. I’m in with 3 kids this week. Hubby will be eating better too, while at home, but I know he often eats fast food during the work week (I try to have healthy alternatives for him to take, but he doesn’t always want them.) :) I can commit fully to the weekdays ans will try on the weekend us 4.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      I used to use King Arthur whole-wheat flour, but now I grind my own flour. I got a wheat grinder for Christmas and love it so far!

  20. Count me in! I’m starting with this pledge and will take the rest from the top. Thanks for the encouragement!

  21. Thank goodnes Triscuits are on the list! I could have eaten lunch out but I pledged this week to no eating out M-F. Came home and ate some egg salad and needed something to go with it. Found an unopened box of Triscuits. Imagine my horror when I started reading the challange about processed foods and 5 ingredients. But Im safe…..PHEW!

  22. We’re in for two adults and three kids at home. We have one event to go to this week and we’ll try our best there, but it’s a limited lunch and there may not be much. Plus it’s not the type of thing we could bring our own food to.