With food allergies and recalls on the rise, it’s easy to worry about every bite your child takes.
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.
Creating a chemical-free diet sounds time-consuming — and pricey.
I can totally relate. All I have time to do is stick chicken nuggets in the microwave and hit two-zero-zero-start. But I made really simple changes in super slow motion. I used to buy multicolored goldfish from Costco, so I thought, I’m just going to buy the ones that are all gold. That way, at least I’ve dumped the multicolored chemicals out. Once we got to gold, then we got to the plain ones, then switched to pretzels. It takes who knows how long to wean a kid off a sippy cup or to potty-train, and that’s how I approached it — it wasn’t going to be overnight.
So starting with just one change can make a big difference?
Yeah, that was critical. If I had to do one thing, what would it be? My boys were milk guzzlers. So I thought, I’m going to buy milk that’s rBGH-free. It’s available in Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kroger. It’s really, how do you reduce the load of chemicals your kids are getting? You can’t go cold-turkey. These are kids, and I live in the real world, where kids are picky eaters. But if cutting back on chemicals meant my boys got an extra 15 minutes of sleep each night because they settled down earlier, I was gonna try it. Those 15 minutes — that’s a gift!
What overall changes need to be made in this country to ensure that our food supply is safe?
Our food system is in dire shape. In 2007, the FDA stated that it is woefully underfunded and that “American lives are at risk.” They don’t have the money they need to investigate and protect us from potential toxins in the food supply. If we can bail out the banking system, then we need to prioritize funding the FDA. But to me, the most important thing is to believe in yourself and your ability to effect remarkable change for your family. We moms have incredible abilities, collectively. And we cannot be daunted. If the moms in other countries have spoken up and gotten corporations to make changes, we can too.
5 Quick and Healthy Lunches
O’Brien’s ideas for easy meals that are low in chemicals but high in kid appeal:
1. Fresh bread with tomato sauce for dipping, an rBGH-free cheese stick or string cheese, and applesauce.
2. Salami, a piece of fresh bread, carrots, and leftover dinner noodles with olive oil or grated cheese.
3. PB&J on fresh bread, color-free potato chips, and a smoothie.
4. An English muffin topped with tomato sauce, rBGH-free cheese, and deli meat, veggies, or whatever you can get away with. Then sandwich the “pizza pie” with the other half of the English muffin. Add a piece of fruit for dessert.
5. Rice and beans — add a side of salsa or guacamole to stir in, and a piece of fruit.
original link: www.health.msn.com/kids-health