Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Home made Marinara sauce is the best. But life is complicated and having a couple of jars in the pantry ready to go when you need one in a hurry is helpful. The ingredients I use for my home made Marinara are tomatoes (fresh or canned depending on the season), garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, oregano, parsley. That’s 7 ingredients.

My favorite brand is Rao’s. The ingredient list reads almost the same as what I use for home made: whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, black pepper, oregano. That’s also 7 ingredients.

Now 7 is greater than 5 and that observation started me thinking about the 5 ingredient rule. 

The 5 ingredient rule refers to the popular marker for identifying ultra-processed foods popularized by Michael Pollan in Food Rules. Defining ultra-processed by counting ingredients sounds unhelpful to my ear but it’s popular with both food journalists and food pundits. And the public seems to accept it because counting to 5 is easy to understand.

And that observation brings me back to my Rao’s Marinara.

With 7 ingredients and no other criteria, Rao’s is ultra-processed. So let me state my position right now for all to hear. If Rao’s must be categorized as ultra-processed, then I’m okay with ultra-processed products on my table.

Next time you’re walking supermarket aisles, check the Marinara sauce. There are hundreds of brands to choose from. Many have simple ingredient lists. Many others have more cluttered ingredient lists. Many brands substitute tomato paste or diced tomatoes for whole peeled tomatoes. So the way I see things, there’s work to be done to distinguish a straightforward product like Rao’s from all the other products on the shelf. 

A quick search on a local supermarket website brings up 75 options ranging in price from cheap to expensive. Not surprisingly, Rao’s is positioned near the top of that price range. All brands have 5 or more ingredients. And that means, if we follow the 5 ingredient rule, all brands of Marinara are ultra-processed.

I spot checked those 75 items and discovered the most notable difference is tomato integrity. Cheaper brands use tomato paste or purée or diced pieces. More expensive brand use whole peeled tomatoes. Tomato integrity is not captured by counting ingredients and it’s crucial to both taste and texture.

 While all brands exceed the 5 ingredient rule, most were comparatively additive free. Citric acid and calcium carbonate made frequent appearances along with preservatives, thickeners, or sweeteners making cameo appearances. Citric acid is an acidity regulator and calcium carbonate is a firming agent. Both these additives are ubiquitous on canned tomatoes whether the tomatoes are peeled and whole, chopped, diced, or puréed. 

Two other additives, salt and sugar, are listed as both nutrients on the nutrition facts label and again as ingredients on the ingredient list.

It seems ridiculous to my simplistic mind to put all Mariana sauces in the ultra-processed category without out further differentiation. So I’m asking myself, how would I break that category down? If I ruled the world, here’s where I would start.

First, whole tomatoes are preferable to chopped or diced or puréed tomatoes. That observation is probably related to the food matrix, a new concept in nutrition research currently in initial stages of investigation. Much too complex for my simplistic mind, so let me stay with those visual observable differences that both of us can see. In the case of the Marinara, the closer the tomato is to a whole tomato the better.

Second, less additives are preferable to more additives. I’m not talking here about the “clean” label movement. There’s a dirty little secret behind the clean label movement as explored in an excellent article by Nadia Berenstein. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look now. 

Additives are used by processors for many good reasons. Eliminating them before understanding why the manufacturer used an additive in the first place is not good practice. Additives are however legitimate markers of processed and ultra-processed products. Personally, I’m not concerned about their safety because I trust the FDA to do a good job. My decision to go with the fewer the better is based on taste and texture. Using the whole intact tomato just tastes better to me. More flavor. Better texture.

Third, nutrients remain important. Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. But it’s equally insane to eat as if nutrients don’t matter. Personally, I always check for salt, not so much for health reasons but because it’s been my observation manufacturers use salt in place of better quality ingredients so the product can be sold at a cheaper price.

Rao’s has a lower sodium concentration than many less expensive brands and the only sugars are the natural sugars present in all tomatoes.  The whole peeled tomatoes retain good flavor and contribute their natural sugars so no masking is required.

Now if only I ruled the world …