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The Unhealthy Truth with special co-host, Melanie Wilson

Robyn O'Brien

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Robyn O'Brien calls herself an "unlikely crusader." Meanwhile, The New York Times has called her the food industry's Erin Brockovich.

O'Brien was raised in a conservative Houston, Texas, home on Twinkies and po' boys. She earned a Fulbright Fellowship, an MBA, and worked as an equity analyst on a multi-billion dollar fund before she moved to Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and four kids. She thought -- like most people do -- that all the food on grocery store shelves must be safe.

It wasn't until her youngest daughter had a violent allergic reaction at breakfast three years ago that she began to question that assumption. She started pulling statistics and was horrified by what she found. From 1997 to 2002 there was a doubling of peanut allergies, that one in 17 kids under the age of three has food allergies, that there was a 265 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergies, and that the U.S. has the highest rate of cancer in the world.

"When did food become so toxic to children?" O'Brien asked. "I learned that a child or anyone who has a food allergy sees a food protein as foreign. And the body launches an inflammatory allergic reaction to drive out that foreign invader. The first question I asked is this: "Is there something foreign in our food that wasn't there when we were kids?" That's when O'Brien's story, which is detailed in her book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, started to take shape.

"Colorado is the healthiest and least obese state in the nation. But do we truly understand where our food comes from?" said Carrie Marsh, executive director of the Vail, Colorado-based Vail Symposium "Robyn will give us an interesting perspective on the U.S. food industry and how it affects us."

"Canary in the coal mine"?
And affect us it does, according to O'Brien. After doing more research, she answered her own question. Yes, there are plenty of foreign invaders in the food supply, namely a slew of unpronounceable chemicals, that weren't there when she was a child. She believes this nation's children represent the "canary in the coal mine."

"They're trying to warn us of the danger that is there," she said.

After researching milk, the top allergy in the U.S., she learned that in 1994, in order to enhance profitability for the dairy industry, some dairy farmers started injecting cows with a synthetic hormone called rBGH to increase profitability and make more milk. Meanwhile, countries around the world have banned the use of this hormone.

"I reached out to organizations and asked, 'Is my child with a milk allergy allergic to conventional milk, which we all drank, or is he allergic to this new hormone rBGH?' And they said, 'We don't know. No test has ever been done.' And as a mother, that wasn't a good answer."

Next she looked at the soy industry and found a similar story.

"I learned that in 1996, in order to increase profitability for the livestock industry, they began to engineer soy so it was high sugar, so it could fatten the livestock quickly," O'Brien said. "Again, my analyst background appreciated that, but because no tests were ever developed to see what role that might play in diabetes or obesity, governments around the world again said this hasn't been proven safe and didn't allow it."

"At that point, it was sort of like looking at the car wreck on the side of the road and asking how bad can this get?" O'Brien added.

From "dark days" to "doing something"
This was heavy information and O'Brien said there were many "dark days" in their house as she grappled with what to do with her newfound knowledge. She eventually found the courage to contact Erin Brockovich, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and others who not only responded, but also wanted to help. In short order, she started her own organization, called AllergyKids, then went on CNN, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and other programs. Soon, Random House approached her about writing a book. And soon thereafter she received a cease-and-desist letter from a non-profit devoted to childhood allergies in Washington. After doing some research, the strange letter made sense. O'Brien learned the non-profit was being funded by a chemical manufacturer.

"It was horrific. We are all kids at this table, we're all eating this food," she said. "And if Kraft, Coke, and Wal-Mart are all adhering to better standards in other countries, they can do it here too."

O'Brien started with baby steps in her own family. She tried to cut colors (i.e. synthetic color additives that are excitotoxins and have been linked to hyperactivity in kids) out of her children's diets and immediately saw a change in their behavior, she said. She would ask her seven-year-old daughter to pronounce the ingredients on food boxes, and if she couldn't, they didn't buy it. She shopped the perimeter of the grocery store, filling her basket with fresh food. In all, she tried to reduce her family's exposure to processed foods and return to the way her grandmother ate.

"I take this 80/20 approach and try to do a good job," she said. "We're all in a time crunch and penny pinched and by establishing that balance, it makes it doable."

While eating organic, fresh food is more expensive, O'Brien indicated doing this has saved her money in healthcare costs, such as pediatrician visits for stomach aches, skin rashes, and more. All these things have cleared up," she added.

And it's doing something like changing her own family's diet and lobbying Congress to stop the federal government from funding chemical companies with taxpayer money that O'Brien has finally embraced her role as a crusader.

"You realize you aren't just a victim of a system, you can be part of a change," O'Brien said. "I really had to embrace my role as the one who had learned this information, and then take responsibility to convey a message I felt was vital," she added.


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