Interview with Robyn O’Brien, Part II

This is a guest post from my husband, Jason Leake, and is part of his interview series for the blog. To learn more about Jason check out our team page.

The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O'Brien

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This is Part II of my interview with Robyn O’Brien. Be sure to read Part I where we discuss food allergies, diet and our food supply.

Robyn’s book The Unhealthy Truth shares the story of “One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply – and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself.” It’s straight up non-fiction, but as Robyn reveals what she learns through her research it begins reading like a thriller (at least for someone like me who’s interested in food and my family’s health!).

Robyn O'Brien

If you’ve not done so already, I recommend you first set the stage by watching Robyn’s TEDx video and by reading her about page. Speaking of setting the stage, I have to get on my soapbox for just a moment. Collectively, we Americans are not “just fine” in terms of our health. We are responsible for our own well-being and the change we seek in the world. I urge you to educate yourself through a variety of sources and to think for yourself. Take action, even baby steps, toward your goals. Remember that if a company, organization, or government is spending a lot of money to withhold information from you, there is a motive behind that. Truth stands on its own.

“In the absence of the truth, all of us stand helpless to defend ourselves, our families and our health, which is the greatest gift we have. Robyn O’Brien’s courageous pursuit is an example of how we can all do our parts to protect the health of our families.” – Erin Brockovich

All right, now on to the interview…

Robyn O’Brien Interview, Part II

10) What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and why should we care?
If you have never heard of them, you are not alone. They are man-made ingredients that are inserted into our foods by chemical companies. These new ingredients (GMOs, or genetically modified organisms) were first introduced into the US food supply in 1994. They are found in our dairy, soy, corn, canola and a handful of other foods. These ingredients have been genetically engineered to either withstand increasing doses of weed killers or to produce their own insecticides. In most developed countries around the world, they are labeled because no long term, independent safety studies have been conducted.

Our food is now hardwired with these new man-made ingredients (GMOs) to be used with certain chemicals and other products. Just as Microsoft bundles products together as an operating system, the same thing has now happened with our food. It’s as if these chemical companies stepped in during the early 1990s and said, “Thanks Mother Nature, we’ll take it from here.” You can learn more at AllergyKids and Just Label It.

11) What foods are GMOs in, and how do you know as a consumer if you are purchasing them at the grocery store or eating them at restaurants?
GMOs are currently not required to be labeled in the US food supply, despite being labeled in all the countries in the European Union, Australia, Japan, the UK, Russia, China, India and dozens of other countries around the world. They are most commonly found in our processed foods because, quite simply, corn and soy are so common in processed foods, and corn and soy are two of the foods that commonly contain these genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs) that enable them to be saturated with weed killer or to produce their own insecticides. As a consumer in most developed countries, you would know you were eating them because these ingredients are labeled (the way we label allergens, fat, sodium or sugar content), but in the United States, these ingredients were introduced into our foods beginning in the 1990s without labels. Until labeling is required here in the US, the best way to avoid them is to buy organic. There are some other good tips on how to avoid genetically modified foods through this link and below.

12) Why do you believe GMOs may be causing allergies?
More importantly than what I believe is the concern expressed by the National Academy of Sciences and dozens of countries around the world. But to answer your question, a food allergy is when your body sees food proteins as foreign and therefore launches an inflammatory response to drive out those foreign invaders. With the introduction of genetically engineered foods, new, foreign proteins entered into our food supply. And while studies were conducted to ensure that the proteins being added to the food would not trigger an allergic reaction, it was the potential for the creation of new allergens that concerns members of the scientific community. The World Health Organization expressed concern over the potential allergencity of these foods and lack of a comprehensive model of testing for allergens, in part leading countries around the world to label these ingredients (download pdf report here). How can we test for an allergen that has never before existed in the food supply?

13) Is there any hard evidence to back up that hypothesis? Correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, after all.
Correlation definitely does not mean causation. Dr. Oz also became incredibly popular during this period of skyrocketing food allergies, and while that correlates, we wouldn’t give his show attribution!

The bottom line is that there are very few if any published, peer reviewed studies on the toxicological impacts of today’s commercial genetically engineered ingredients now found in our food supply. Which begs the questions:

  • Where is the scientific evidence that shows a comparative study (on children) of these genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs) and their traditional counterparts indicating these foods do not cause allergies?
  • Where are the allergy tests that compare a skin test reaction to soy versus genetically engineered soy? To corn or genetically engineered corn that can produce its own insecticide? Or to milk like that consumed in Europe versus milk in the United States that contains an ingredient not allowed into dairy in any other developed country around the world?

Those studies don’t exist, so the industry is able to claim “no evidence of harm” but that does not mean that they are safe. It simply means those studies have not been conducted.

The industry will also claim that these ingredients are “the most tested food product the world has ever seen.” Those tests are not open to independent and peer-reviewed studies and are conducted by the companies bringing these products to market. Is that always a problem? No. Has it been a problem? Yes, one only needs look to the tobacco industry’s science to see the self-interest that can be served by industry funded science.

As reported in Science magazine, a Spanish researcher named Jose L. Domingo1 found only seven peer reviewed papers on genetically engineered crop safety (as of the year 2000), and most of them dealt with short-term nutritional effects. According to Dr. Charles Benbrook2, what that means is that at the time that two genetically engineered products were approved for the food supply, there were no studies in the open scientific literature.

Let’s stop and think about that for a minute in the context of something that is more familiar. Can you imagine if a medical device or a new pharmaceutical drug were introduced with no studies in the open scientific literature for public review? Or if a car was introduced onto the highway in the same manner?

The concern is shared by the National Academy of Sciences in the paper Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences.

“As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.” 

1 Jose L. Domingoho later went on to write a 2007 paper, “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature.”
2 Dr. Charles Benbrook worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997, served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration, and, following the election of Ronald Reagan, moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues.

14) But what about the promise of GMOs increasing crop yields? Couldn’t this be an answer to world hunger?
This cannot be generalized. In some cases, yields have been shown to improve while in others, they have not. When the chemical corporations promise that their new products and this new technology can deliver those increased yields, those are forward looking statements made to their shareholders as disclosed in their financial statements and annual reports.

But recently, those claims have been challenged by a United Nation’s special report:

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available… Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods (without the use of GMOs) outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments… Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today.” – Olivier De Schutter

He goes on to say, “The current intellectual property rights regime (meaning the way that these ingredients (GMOs) are patented by the chemical companies) is suboptimal to ensure global food security today.”

15) Many people are not aware that there’s a revolving door between the FDA (the agency that was founded to protect Americans) and Big Food, Agriculture, and Chemical companies (like Monsanto). How can we fight for change against such money and lobbying power?

This was an incredibly difficult piece for me to learn. In the financial world, it’s called “capture the regulator.” Industry will do what they can, with lobbying efforts, to sway federal agencies and to pass legislation that is favorable to their financial interests. It can result in deregulation. Deregulating the banking industry led to toxic assets with a government-funded bailout. Consumers are waking up to the fact that the same thing has happened in the food industry with deregulation leading to toxic assets, with food now contaminated with everything from e.coli to these new genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs).

As this “Food Awakening” occurs in the US, as it first did in Europe, it’s important to remember that consumers drove the change in Europe. When they began to learn about these new ingredients (GMOs), they didn’t want to eat them, in light of the lack of human safety studies and the fact that no long-term toxicological studies had been conducted. Legislation followed. Government should not legislate what we eat, and labels would give Americans the liberty to choose whether or not they want to eat these new ingredients, just as labels let us choose if we want to eat gluten-free, low-fat, dairy free, kosher or low-sugar. It’s a freedom of choice.

So what we can do is communicate directly with the food companies – their fates do not have to be tied to the chemical companies genetically engineering our food to withstand their chemicals. The food companies are full of people who have families just like ours, with real concerns over the health of their loved ones, and our voices give them the political cover within the corporation to go to their boards and make these changes.

The New York Times is just reporting that the industry is coming together to discuss the issue. Let them know that you care and appreciate the dialogue, that you want the same value placed on your life and the life of your children that these food companies have placed on the lives of families in other countries (where they are labeling these ingredients!). Join the over one million Americans who have reached out to the FDA by signing a petition to urge them to introduce a federal labeling law.

16) Are you more concerned about GMOs, processed foods, or both? Why?
My concern is that in light of the growing number of epidemics we are seeing in this country, from obesity to diabetes to allergies and autism, it is critical that Americans are told what is in their food. The food industry informs us of the added sugar, fat and sodium content, as well as of allergens. Increasing scientific evidence points to the role that chemicals, artificial additives and other ingredients now found in our food supply are having on our health, and that information can go a long way toward protecting the health of our country.

17) Food corporations claim reformulating their products to remove harmful ingredients (like artificial colors) or changing labeling would be “too expensive.” But they did just that in Europe (even US based corporations) after public outcry in 1999 from the British Southampton Study. What actions can we take in the US to get the same results?
It is quite revealing to look at what our own American companies are doing with their products overseas, in countries that take more precautions when it comes to introducing new, never-before-used synthetic and chemical ingredients into food. A great example comes from Kraft which stated:

Kraft Foods UK has no products aimed at children that contain the ingredients highlighted in the FSA [Southampton] study. . . . [W]ith our recent Lunchables reformulation in the UK, we reduced fat and salt, as well as removed artificial colours and flavours. Without compromising quality, taste and food safety, we will continue to see where we can make changes and still meet consumer expectations.”—Kraft Foods UK

These companies don’t use genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs), artificial growth hormones, and artificial dyes in the products that they make and sell in other countries. So they can do it, they just haven’t done it here….yet!

Ingredient lists are changed all the time. As companies continue to hear from consumers that we want less high fructose corn syrup, less sugar, less artificial dyes, or no genetically engineered ingredients, they are responding and building out a food supply that responds to consumer demands. Trans fats and pink slime are two great examples of consumers insisting on change from the food industry and them responding. We are a nation of over 300 million eaters. Together, the way we navigate the grocery store or the way we connect with one another (and these companies) using social media can determine what the food supply is going to look like down the road.

18) How do we sort through all the conflicting information out there…everyone has “evidence” to support his or her side.
Follow the money. Industry funded science tends to favor industry, according to David Ludwig, MD and researcher out of Harvard.

19) What are some steps our readers can take to avoid GMOs?
If you are concerned about GMOs, you are not alone. A recent poll released by ABC News found that 93 percent of the American public wants the federal government to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. As ABC News stated, “Such near-unanimity in public opinion is rare.”  Here are some things you can do to avoid GMOs:

  1. When you can, choose organic eggs, as they are not from chickens fed corn or soy that has been genetically engineered.
  2. Cook with olive oil instead of conventional butter, margarine or vegetable oil which most likely contain genetically engineered ingredients.
  3. Look for dairy products (milk, cream, butter) labeled “rbGH-free” or “USDA Organic” as they do not contain artificial growth hormones created from a genetically engineered e.coli bacteria.
  4. Avoid products that contain conventional soy and corn (soy lecithin, high fructose corn syrup) since most are likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.
  5. Look for products labeled “non-GMO” or “USDA Organic” because by law they are not allowed to be produced using these genetically engineered ingredients.
  6. Want to buy organic but need some tips as a real family on a real budget? A few ideas are listed on my blog here and Lisa’s blog here.
  7. Eat like a European.  They don’t require the labeling of organic food. They just call it food.  They require the labeling of genetically engineered ingredients so that they can make an informed choice, opt out and steer clear of these foods if they choose.
  8. Reach out to your elected officials, they have kids, too! You can find out who your local Senators and Congressmen (your representatives) are here

20) You mention a British study where researchers concluded:

“There is a general adverse affect of artificial food colouring and benzoate preservatives on the behaviour of 3 year old children which is detectable by parents but not by a simple clinical assessment.” A later study by the same group concluded, “Clinicians should give weight to the accounts of parents and consider this treatment in selected children with a suggestive medical history.”

Why did you feel it was important to highlight these distinctions in your book, and what practical advice does this translate to for parents?
Parents are the first and last line of defense for a child and can provide evidence that may not necessarily be captured in a doctor’s office visit.

There is so much information that you can learn simply by observing your child. To learn more about immediate food allergic reactions versus delayed reactions (or food sensitivities), see my article here. And work with a doctor that uses the information (and does not dismiss it) in order to help protect the health of your child.

Allergy Kids Foundation - Robyn O'Brien

21) Tell me about the non-profit AllergyKids Foundation.
We build community and provide information, basically serving as an “on ramp” for parents of children with allergies, asthma, autism and ADHD who are looking to learn about the food supply and how to make small changes in their meals that can make a big difference in the health of their families. We are launching some amazing projects this year that will bring a light to some of the most incredible stories you can imagine, about families overcoming health adversity, creating changes, starting businesses, and building out platforms. The goal of the organization is to show that we can protect the health of our children – love is such a rocket fuel – because while they may only represent 30% of the population, they are 100% of our future.

22) So what fills your time these days? What’s next?
This year the focus is on the inspiration, the hope and the incredible talent that our generation of parents represents. Our collective skills are extraordinary, and while none of us can do everything, all of us can do something and that is beautiful, fun and exciting to see. All too often, we focus on the negative and this message is delivered with fear and alarm. The information can be terrifying enough. But if you think about it, that this information just might be able to help you protect the people that you love, then you suddenly realize that this information is a gift, to deliver with hope and optimism, teaching that we have enormous power to affect change in the marketplace, in our communities and in our children’s schools. That is so inspiring and does not require that we sit on the sidelines waiting for government to make these changes at the regulatory level. We can begin to create those changes today in our own kitchens, our own families, and our communities and schools. The food industry is listening, farmers are listening, and members of Congress are listening. Food companies will opt out when they hear from enough us. Do not underestimate the power of your own voice and how together, we are so powerful.

23) If you could go back in time and provide one piece of information to your old self – before all of this began – what would it be?
Eat real food.

Thank you, Robyn, for your work and for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. If you’ve enjoyed Part I and Part II of this interview, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Robyn’s book The Unhealthy Truth and to subscribe to her blog and Facebook page.

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  1. unfortunately, I do not think you are correct in buying organic as a way to avoid GMO. As it stands in the US, you must go to extreme lengths to get “old world” seeds, 90% of everything found in any store or nursery is GMO. Organic in most states just concerns the concetrated levels of pesiticides used during growing process, not weather the seeds are GMO or not. Having a huband that works on farm equipment, where the farmers are all insupport of the GMO’s, I have learned a little bit. I just do not understand in such a sue happy society why someone is not suing the FDA for using us a guinea pigs, especially our children that are on ADHD meds in growing numbers because no one is looking to eliminate the chemicals in their systems to change thier behavior….

  2. I love Robyn! It was listening to her TED talks presentation that really helped me to become passionate about switching my family from packaged, processed foods to whole, real foods. Our health has improved immensely as a result of making the switch! I would love to be able to read the book, in order to learn even more about how we are being deceived and what we can do to protect ourselves!

  3. Would LOVE to receive a copy of this book! As a nurse and a mother (and, well, just a health-conscious human), I believe the issue of “real food” to be SO important to our short- and long-term well-being; we probably don’t know yet how significant it is. In this society, though, it can be a difficult commitment to keep, and I’d like to have all the help I can get!

  4. Raising three boys as a single mom, I am becoming more aware of what I am feeding them as our lives revolve around work/school/sports. It is through an educational book like this one, that the information can promote change and then I would pass the book forward!