Simple ingredients

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You may have heard the advice that says, if you’re going to buy a snack food, buy the one with the fewest ingredients. It won’t cut out the calories, but at least you’ll lose most of the additives, preservatives and unsatisfying artificial flavors. And on the whole less-processed foods (those with fewer ingredients) also contain more fiber and nutrients.

This summer, however, is the first time I’d ever seen snacks actually marketed this way, taking advantage of the less-is-more mantra in their own commercials. Some time in June, I think it was, I saw my first Frito-Lay “power of three” ad, boasting the three lonely ingredients in some of that company’s chips (either potato or corn, depending on the chip, and then some type of oil and salt). Then last month I began seeing ads for the new Haagen Dazs ice cream line, “Five,” which is named for its number of ingredients (milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and one of seven flavorings — including coffee, mint and ginger). I was curious. What are the companies up to? Why are they advertising this way and whom are they trying to attract? I spoke with Haagen Dazs brand manager Ching-Yee Hu to find out. Here’s what she had to say:

[This interview has been edited for length.] 

TIME: Why? Why did Haagen Dazs want to launch Five?

A: We’ve always been an all-natural brand. We actually follow this policy called “kitchen friendly,” which means that we don’t use ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a well-stocked home pantry. For example, there a lot of ingredients used in commercial ice cream —like guar gum, or carrageenin, or locust bean gum — that are not bad ingredients. Technically they’re all-natural, but we don’t use that stuff. So from the beginning our loyal consumers have always been people who gravitated to natural, high-quality food. Then in recent years we noticed that this was evolving and turning into something a little more specific: We were starting to see our loyalists talking about, not just natural food or high-quality food or good ingredients, but the ideas of simplicity and purity.

My favorite story is that we were in one focus group and a guy was talking to us about potato chips. He said he was shopping in a store, and he’d grabbed a couple packages. He told us, “One package said ‘light,’ so I was tempted, but when I looked at the ingredients I didn’t recognize 90% of them. And then I looked at another package and all it said was ‘potatoes, olive oil and sea salt.’ When I saw that I immediately thought, ‘This is going to taste better, and it’s going to be better for me — because there are only three ingredients and I know what every single one of them is.’” We were excited by this idea as well, that a consumer could see a short, simple ingredient list and simultaneously think, “great taste” and “healthier.” 

We thought, what would it mean to bring ice cream down to its simplest and purest, but in a way that could still taste amazing? It turned out to be more complicated than you’d think. But we did some initial conversations with consumers just to see: Were we crazy or was this something they thought was interesting? We were astounded to see how compelling an idea this was for our consumers.

TIME: I’ve read a lot in the last few years — just from general consumer health tips — saying, you know, if you’re not sure which product to buy, go with the one that has fewer ingredients because it’s probably gone through less processing. Do you think that that’s part of what this drive for simplicity is all about, that it’s about health? Or do you think it’s more of a lifestyle movement?

A: I think it’s both. I do think it’s also a general approach to lifestyle, and an appreciation for simple, authentic food. It’s not as simple as, “Oh, this is the healthier choice.” I think for a lot of our consumers this is an attractive and appealing way to think about food, and to think about shopping for food.  

TIME: Are you surprised that people look for healthy food even when it comes to ice cream? I mean, it’s not something you’re going to make the staple of your diet.

A: Yes and no. Ice cream is not a diet food. On the other hand, if you’re a person who cares about quality over quantity, there’s no reason why something as enjoyable and well-loved as ice cream shouldn’t be of the highest quality possible.