Another reason to avoid processed foods
As a consumer, you probably assume that companies manufacturing processed foods know what ingredients are in those foods. That isn't always true. I once had a patient who ate a new food whose label listed “spices” as an ingredient without specifying which ones. The patient soon realized that this food tasted like it contained a spice that had previously caused him to develop a potentially life-threatening condition, so he contacted me. I telephoned the food company and asked if that spice was an ingredient. Here is my best recollection of how the rest of that conversation went:
Quaker Oats Company Rep: I can't tell you. It's proprietary information.
Dr. Pezzi: What do you mean, “proprietary information”?
Quaker rep: It's a secret.
Dr. Pezzi: But I have a patient who might die from eating that spice. I can institute therapy for that possibility and minimize his risk of developing such an adverse reaction, but the therapy itself is unpleasant and carries some risk of its own. Therefore, the logical thing to do is to first ascertain whether or not that therapy is indicated. So that is why I called you: to discover if you include that spice in your product.
Quaker rep: I'm sorry, but I can't tell you what spices we use as ingredients.
Dr. Pezzi: I don't need to know all the spices you include, just one in particular. I can tell you what spice the patient has had problems with in the past, and you can say if it is present or not in your food.
Quaker rep: Again, that is proprietary information. We cannot reveal what our ingredients are.
Dr. Pezzi: Why not?
Quaker rep: Because competitors may use that information to copy our products.
Dr. Pezzi: Look, I am a doctor, not a food manufacturer. I will not use the ingredient information you give to me for anything except treating this patient.
Quaker rep: Again, we will not reveal that information.
Dr. Pezzi: Don't people have a right to know what ingredients they consume?
Quaker rep: We are not required to divulge all of that information. Our labels meet the legal requirements for ingredient disclosure.
Dr. Pezzi: But I have a patient who could potentially die from an idiosyncratic reaction to one particular spice. You have an ethical obligation to help him in such a circumstance in which he must either risk dying, or risk a treatment that should only be instituted if necessary.
Quaker rep: I'm sorry, but we cannot help you.
Dr. Pezzi: (Thinking that it's time for a bluff) As a doctor, I am compelled to inform you that you are impeding the emergency care of a patient, and that such a voluntary refusal to cooperate may imperil the patient's health and therefore subject you to substantial liability. I am therefore ordering you to disclose that information.
Quaker rep: I can notify our corporate office and see if they will contact you.
Dr. Pezzi: Great. When might I hear from them?
Quaker rep: In a day or two, if they respond. They may not.
Dr. Pezzi: (Becoming irate) A day or two? It will be too late by then! can't you call them now?
Quaker rep: No, I don't have their number.
Dr. Pezzi: May I speak with your supervisor?
Quaker rep: Just one minute … Please hold while I connect you to my supervisor.
Quaker Supervisor: Hello, may I help you?
Dr. Pezzi: Did the person I first spoke with give you a synopsis of my request?
Quaker Supervisor: She did.
Dr. Pezzi: So will you tell me if your product contains the spice in question?
Quaker Supervisor: No, because we obtain our spices from a flavoring company. We don't know what ingredients they include.
Dr. Pezzi: You must be joking. You don't know what ingredients are in your foods?
Quaker Supervisor: We do not know what ingredients they include. It's proprietary information.
Dr. Pezzi: (Exasperated) But you pay them! Surely that gives you the economic clout to know what you're getting.
Quaker Supervisor: They won't tell us what their ingredients are.
Dr. Pezzi: Don't you think that you have a responsibility to know what you are putting into the bodies of millions of people?
Her answer? No. As I continued speaking with this automaton for a few more minutes, I witnessed the callous disregard that processed food companies have for our health. I knew that they use all sorts of legal chicanery to make their ingredient lists seem less alarming than they should be, but I had no idea that they were this lackadaisical about food safety.
Food manufacturers can get away with these shenanigans only because politicians allow them to do so. Too many politicians are just yes-men for special interests, one of which is the huge processed food industry.
I do not think that all processed foods are necessarily unhealthy, but most are to varying degrees. I've spent years analyzing food labels, and from this survey I know that processed food companies are often unconscionably nonchalant when choosing ingredients. They may include an ingredient that is known to be detrimental to health (such as a partially hydrogenated fat) even when there is no compelling reason to add it. Their food scientists are either too stupid (unlikely) or too hidebound (very likely) to omit the risky ingredients or to choose a healthier substitute.
My advice? Unless you take the time to decipher ingredient labels, avoid processed foods. Processed food companies care more about their profits than your health, so vote with your wallet.