Does the number of ingredients matter?

Phew! That was one tough semester, and it’s officially over. One of my final assignments actually inspired me to write this post. In my research seminar, I was actually lucky enough to get to design a food psychology research study for which I got to collect real data! Writing the 15+ page paper on top of all my other finals was trying, to say the least, but it feels cool to be conducting semi-real research in a lab that does amazing work. The reason this is relevant is because I was investigating whether the number of ingredients on a food’s label influences how healthy the food is perceived to be. If you are into popular nutrition trends, you have probably heard that among packaged foods, fewer ingredients is better. I wanted to see if this stigma against long ingredient lists has had any affect on how people rate the healthiness of a food.

Regardless of the results of my study, I wanted to add my two cents to this discussion about the number of ingredients in a packaged food as it relates to health. The reason the media and oftentimes health professional will advise one to avoid foods with more than x number of ingredients is because the number of ingredients is known to be associated with how processed a food is, and degree of processing, as you might know from reading my last post, is associated with bad nutrition and ultimately bad health outcomes. This is undoubtedly true a lot of the time; when a packaged food has 37 ingredients, it is likely that a lot of them are highly refined or even synthetic substances that certainly do not qualify as whole foods. Take a look at this list of ingredients found in Strawberry Pop-Tarts to see what I mean:

TAKE NOTE: I am not trying to encourage irrational fears of individual ingredients. Eating a Strawberry Pop Tart is not going to kill you because of this artificial color or this other word you can’t pronounce, but making it and foods like it form the basis of your diet is not a recipe for health.

All of that being said, a long list of ingredients does not preclude a packaged food from being healthy. I would say the most important thing to do is to look at all the whole product as greater than the sum of its parts; if it’s made up of mostly whole food ingredients, a preservative or a limited amount of sweetener here and there isn’t such a big deal. But the product is almost entirely made up of ingredients you’d never imagine using in your own kitchen, I’d skip it most of the time. And there is truth to the notion that if a food has five or fewer ingredients, it’s probably on the less processed end of the spectrum, which is a good thing, but I’m sure there are exceptions!

It’s analogous to how you should evaluate your whole diet- your health and your weight do not depend on one particular food, one particular nutrient, or one particular group of foods. It’s all about balance, variety, and moderation.

Now that I’m home for winter break, look out for my meatless monday cooking posts! Happy holidays!

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