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Robyn O'Brien

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Author and Organic Advocate

Here, Robyn O'Brien discusses her investigation into America’s food supply and explains why she advocates choosing organic whenever possible to reduce your family's exposure to novel and potential allergens.

Robyn O'BrienQ: You recently published a book called The Unhealthy Truth, which chronicles your personal experience with and research into the food supply. What prompted you to write this book, and what are some of your main findings?

A: Life changed one morning over a plate of scrambled eggs when our youngest child had a life threatening allergic reaction.  Up until that point, I hadn’t given much thought about what went into our food, where it came from or how it is regulated, and in all candour, I had rolled my eyes at food allergies.  I was a former food industry analyst, with four young children, limited time and a limited budget, and I wasn’t particularly  sensitive to any of it and almost entirely ignorant about the dangers in our food supply and the sudden increase in the rates of allergies, autism, ADHD and asthma in American children.
 
So I was stunned to learn that there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy from 1997-2002 and that according to the Center for Disease Control, there had been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions.  Since a food allergy is defined as when your body sees food proteins as foreign and launches an inflammatory response to drive out the foreign invader, I couldn’t help but ask the question: are there new and perceived “foreign” substances in our food supply?

Several years ago, farmers began injecting dairy cows with a genetically engineered hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which they used to increase milk production in dairy cows.  Today, milk allergies are the most common food allergies in the United States according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal, yet no tests have been developed to assess whether these allergies are actually in response to the new proteins introduced in the genetic engineering process that produced rbGH.  A few years later, soy began to be genetically engineered and there was a sudden increase in the rates of soy allergies. Again, though no tests were developed to assess the allergenicity of the novel proteins created in the process. 
 
While correlation is not causation, these statistics were jaw-dropping.  Yet when I approached the largest food allergy non-profit about the data, they basically had an allergic reaction to me. So with my background in finance, I pulled their financial statements in an attempt to understand why they might react this way, who was funding their research and why they had not highlighted the potential risks, novel proteins and novel allergens found in these recently introduced genetically engineered foods. That is when I learned of their financial relationship, and those their medical advisors, with large food and chemical corporations, with some of our nationally-recognized allergists even listed as inventors on some of the patents for these genetically engineered proteins.
 
Because no tests have been developed to assess the safety of the novel proteins and allergens created in the biotechnological process of genetic engineering, governments of developed countries around the world have exercised precaution and either did not allow these novel proteins into their food supplies or required their labelling so that consumers, especially parents, could make an informed choice when it comes to feeding their loved ones.  In the United States, that precautionary measure was never taken, despite the fact that human trials had not been conducted to assess the safety and allergenicity of these novel proteins.  Because I could not unlearn that information or that of the financial ties between some of our nation’s most trusted pediatric allergists and big corporations and felt it important to disclose this information in order to inspire and inform parents and caregivers about ways in which they could begin to protect their children with food allergies, autism, ADHD and asthma, I founded the AllergyKids Foundation and wrote The Unhealthy Truth.

Q: What did your research reveal about the cost of food and food production?

A:Prior to unearthing all of this information, I was in the camp that thought that organic food was a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous or a hippie movement.  And it completely bothered me that it cost so much.   And in all candour, when we met the management teams of these companies when I was a food industry analyst, I ignorantly dismissed their work as a profitable marketing niche.

But as I began to learn more, I realized that our taxpayer dollars are being used to support farmers that grow crops with chemicals, while farmers that grow crops without the use of synthetic ingredients are charged a fee to prove that their crops are free of these ingredients, then charged a fee to label these crops as having adhered to this higher standard, and at the same time, are not offered the same crop insurance and marketing assistance programs.  In other words, the way the food production cost structure is set up now, it is cheaper to produce food using chemicals than without them.  That means it’s also cheaper to buy foods made with chemicals.

Or is it? Products made with synthetic chemicals have hidden costs that affect all of us—these externalized costs are called ag “externalities,” and they include damage and the chemical contamination of water sources, soil resources, and wildlife and ecosystem biodiversity, as well as damage to human health from such things as exposure to pesticides. No studies have been done to assess what the cumulative impact of all of these toxins and their synergistic toxicity are having on the health of our families and environment.

With the use of antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, pesticides, and artificial colors and dyes, some of the greatest threats to our health aren’t actually found in our DNA, but in our food supply. So, while we only spend 9 cents of every dollar on food, we spend 16 cents of every dollar managing chronic disease.  On the other hand, if we choose to invest in organic products and those produced without the use of these synthetic ingredients, we are not only investing in our health, by reducing their families’ exposure to these toxins and the health risks that they might present, which can pay health dividends for a lifetime, but we are also paying the true cost of food rather than the artificially reduced prices of conventional food enabled by the federal allocation of taxpayer resources.   

Q: In your book, you advocate buying organic as a means to reduce one’s exposure to allergens. Why?

A: By law, products that are labelled as USDA Organic are not allowed to contain genetically engineered proteins.  As a result, products labelled USDA Organic do not contain the novel proteins and allergens created in the biotechnology process of genetic engineering.  Therefore, choosing organic is one way to avoid exposure to these novel allergens and proteins.

Avoiding conventional soy and corn (and their derivatives, like cornstarch and soy lecithin) is another way to reduce your family’s exposure to these ingredients.  Still another  way to reduce your family’s exposure to these novel ingredients (or for those who have kids who guzzle milk the way an SUV guzzles gas the way that mine did) is to switch to milk that is labelled rbGH-free. (Note: all organic milk is rBGH-free).

Q: What advice do you have for parents of children who are suffering from food allergies?
 
A: Ask questions. While doctors are more than happy to prescribe medication to treat the symptoms of food allergies, very often the underlying triggers for these symptoms are a child’s sensitivity or allergy to proteins now found in our food supply.  And while there is money in prescribing the medicines, the solution to what ails a child can often be found in reducing a child’s exposure to an underlying trigger food and simply eliminating that food trigger from the child’s diet. Remember, while medications can be life-saving devices (from EpiPens to asthma inhalers), treating the underlying cause of food allergies is what can prevent the need for those medications in the first place. If you were standing on a thumbtack, you wouldn’t continue to take medication until it stopped hurting.  You’d remove the thumbtack.  The same logic applies here.  So, my advice is to find a doctor that is willing to work with you to help pinpoint the foods that are triggering the discomfort and allergic reactions in your children so that you can exercise precaution when protecting the health of your children. 
 
Q: If you had to identify the most important take-away from your book, what would it be?
 
A: Believe in your ability to effect change.  While none of us can do everything when it comes to cleaning up the food supply, all of us can do something.  And sometimes all it takes to get started is to do one thing.  So remember not to make “the perfect” the enemy of “the good”.  But rather, start where you stand and try to reduce your family’s exposure to the additives and chemicals in our food supply in baby steps.  If you want to cut out the synthetic growth hormones, rbGH, go for it.  Or if you want to reduce your child’s exposure to artificial food colors and dyes, start there.  And as we all do our part, with what we have for who we love, together, we can effect remarkable change in the health of our families and never underestimate what a nation of 300 million inspired eaters can do!

About Robyn O'Brien
A Fulbright grant recipient, author, mother of four and former food industry analyst, Robyn O’Brien brings compassion, insight and detailed analysis to her research into the impact that the global food system is having on the health of children around the world.  A dual citizen of both New Zealand and the United States, Robyn graduated as the top woman in her class from business school before working as a Wall Street analyst on a global portfolio team.  Following her career as an analyst, Robyn founded the visionary organization, www.allergykidsfoundation.org, which is focused on restoring the integrity of the food supply and the health of children everywhere.  On Mother’s Day 2009, Random House published her critically acclaimed book, "The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It."

Regarded as an expert on children's health policy and hailed as "food's Erin Brockovich" by The New York Times, Robyn is a sought after speaker who lectures extensively, and appears on national broadcasts that include CNN, ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's The Today Show.  She writes for SHAPE magazine, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, and other media.  She has been named by SHAPE Magazine as one of 2009’s “Women To Shape the World”, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, was named by Forbes Woman as one of “20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter,” and most recently was recognized by The Discovery Channel as one of its 15 Top Visionaries and by Ted Turner’s Captain Planet Foundation as a “Superhero for the Earth”.  Robyn’s work has also been recognized by individuals such as Dr. Oz, Robert Kennedy Jr., Ted Turner and Prince Charles.