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The food industry pissed off the wrong Mommy of Four. Sarah Palin might call Robyn O'Brien (author of The Unhealthy Truth) a pitbull with lipstick. She might be blond and pretty, but when her youngest child, Tory, had an allergic reaction to eggs, she didn't take "Don't worry your pretty little head about it" for an answer. Why are allergies and asthma on such a rise in America?
The answers were largely: We don't know and we're not really studying it. Better yet, there were two competing camps that each thought the other one's strategy would harm the kids. One thought you should expose your kids to the foods they are allergic to in small doses to see if the allergy would go away, and the other thought you should totally avoid any contact to the allergic food at all to see if it would go away. Riiight. It's nice to have theories, it's nice to do research, but what happens if you have kids, they have allergies, and you have to feed them NOW?
Much of this book is a personal story of the O'Brien family and their four children, Lexy, Colin, John, and Tory. Once upon a time they were a happy family of four, complete with Kraft Mac n Cheese, blue yogurt, dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets, and colorful goldfish crackers. And then, when Tory was nine months old and the oldest, Lexy, was five, things changed in an instant.
Tory ate some eggs and her face puffed up and turned red. A few doctors' appointments later, she was diagnosed with an allergy to eggs. Life in the O'Brien house changed. Now - it didn't change overnight. Robyn was raised in so-called Red America (Houston, actually), with a military father and a conservative, Republican background. Not that that shapes one's eating habits per se, but it can tend toward an attitude of not questioning authority. Robyn had been doing everything you're supposed to do to be a good mother - including those dino-shaped nuggets - and when Tory got sick, she wanted to make her child well.
So she started researching. And researching. And the answers didn't add up. And then she found out that Kraft funded the nation's major allergy non-profit. Whoops. Maybe that was why that allergy group wasn't so thrilled to acknowledge some of the research that was out there about potential links between allergies and GMOs? (GMOs that you eat in Kraft foods, that is.)
After all that research, Robyn condenses the possible causes of increasing allergies to the following list:
1. The shift from a natural to an industrial environment
2. Excessive exposure to antibiotics, both as prescribed to our children and as consumed through antibiotic-laden meat, milk, and poultry.
3. The rise in pollutants and environmental toxins (perhaps including the fumes and residues from some of the chemical products we use to clean our homes).
4. Our tendency to eat more processed foods loaded with chemical additives and preservatives and to eat far fewer natural whole foods.
As it turned out, it wasn't just Tory who had allergies. In fact, I found her son Colin's story even MORE interesting. Tory's allergy is the sort of thing you hear about all the time, and while it's a scary thing that a child could potentially die from eating a normal and ubiquitous food like eggs, at least it's easy to diagnose as an allergy. But then there is Colin, who drank milk like it was his job for YEARS.
Colin suffered from eczema, frequent ear infections, and more. Nobody knew why. Nobody assumed food played a role. Robyn took him to the doctor and they prescribed drugs and put tubes in his ears. Then the family tried an unintentional experiment. A week without milk during a family vacation. Suddenly the eczema started to clear up. Hmmm. Turns out Colin had a milk allergy. Not only did his health change for the better, but the dairy-free Colin had a happier personality!
It was events like that that ultimately led Robyn to remove far more than the diagnosed allergens from her children's diets. What about artificial coloring? And why were other countries removing it from their food but we weren't? As it turned out, the additives in our food (like the coloring) can have an effect on children's behavior. So as a parent, it's not just about being a tree-hugging hippie if you want to feed your kids an all-natural diet. It's about fewer tantrums and getting more sleep at night.
The Unhealthy Truth goes off into subjects that I largely shy away from, like the effects of GMOs on our health. I keep waiting for more definitive science and broad consensus about them before I speak up, but as I said before, if you're a mom and you're feeding four kids, you need the answer yesterday. What was that Rumsfeld quote - we go to war with the army we have, not the army we wish we had? Right. O'Brien had to make her decisions based on the science we have. Pathetically little science, very often.
I can see readers criticizing some of the research studies she cites, in fact, because they certainly aren't of the caliber you might want in order to judge whether one particular food additive or technology is safe, but that's exactly the point. Nobody DID the comprehensive study to prove the foods safe or unsafe, and O'Brien notes that. So she advocates doing as the Europeans do and using the Precautionary Principle: A food must be proven safe before we eat it. Americans, on the other hand, typically like to profit first, and ask questions later. Our population and our children can be the guinea pigs and when somebody gets sick, or many people get sick, we'll consider taking a food off the market.
All in all, I like this book. I think it's a terrific contribution to Americans waking up to the realities of their food and its problems. Robyn provides MANY tips on how to wean kids off of their blue yogurt and dino-nugget diets to healthier foods, and she does so in a non-intimidating way for people who may have never strayed far off the industrial food path ever before. However, she does not advocate for purity, nor does she intend to. And I don't see that as a pont to criticize her for - she's focused on reality and for some people, going from totally processed factory farmed chemical laden junk to less processed factory farmed meat is a great step up. I believe that people make changes when they are ready, and I hope that this book will engage new people into this dialogue who may have never questioned their food before. When people are ready, they might seek out a farmers market or get a pet chicken. Or they might not. But at least they aren't serving up blue yogurt anymore.