Allergies, Recalls, Chemicals? How to Feed Your Kids Safely
Robyn O'Brien was cooking breakfast for her children in January 2006 when she fed her 9-month-old daughter eggs for the first time. An ordinary meal quickly turned into a terrifying ordeal: Tory's face began to swell and turn bright red before her mother's eyes. Soon after, Tory was diagnosed with food allergies, and O'Brien grew determined to understand how childhood staples like eggs, peanuts, and milk could have set off allergies in her baby — and in 3 million other kids in this country. Her concerns aren't unfounded: According to a 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007. Meanwhile, food recalls are more common now than ever before, as evidenced by all the scary headlines about contaminated tomatoes, peanut butter, and pistachios. O'Brien's investigation into why this might be happening — detailed in her new book, The Unhealthy Truth — convinced her that she needed to reduce her kids' exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in their food. That's something we'd all like to do, but how's a regular mom supposed to play part-time nutritionist? O'Brien spoke to REDBOOK about simple ways we can clean up kids' diets without losing our perspective — or our minds.
How did you even start to tackle all this research, and what did you learn?
My background is in motherhood — I have four children between the ages of 4 and 9 — but also in finance. So I began to look into the numbers. I discovered that since the 1990s, this country has been adding genetically modified organisms [GMOs] to its food supply. That means some of our food has had foreign proteins inserted into it, for many different reasons. For the past 15 years, for instance, much of our milk has come from cows injected with a hormone called rBGH to increase their milk production. And 80 percent of our corn now contains an insecticide so we lose less crop to pests. I wonder whether a child with allergies might be reacting to those foreign proteins. As I learned in business school, correlation is not necessarily causation: We can't know that food allergies are caused by GMOs just because they both rose at the same time. There's a strong enough correlation, however, that I feel it merits investigation.
You mention a study in which 300 kids in England were put on a diet free of artificial coloring, sweeteners, and preservatives. Half were given a drink made of artificial colors and a preservative; the other half got a placebo drink. In the end, kids who got the first drink were far more hyperactive. What was the result?
After this study, there was a follow-up confirming it a few years later. The follow-up was so compelling that corporations in the U.K., including Kraft and Coca-Cola, said, "We're going to voluntarily remove these chemicals from children's products." It gave me hope, because it means corporations are responding to the needs of mothers overseas. And once we're informed the way the mothers in the U.K. were informed, then companies can bring those same products here to the United States if we want them.