Check out the first part of this exclusive interview with lecturer, best-selling author of, ‘The Unhealthy Truth’ and featured speaker at the upcoming Women’s Wellness Conference™, Robyn O’Brien and discover:
- Why this generation of children is being labelled, ‘Generation RX’ by leading health professionals across the globe.
- The dramatic changes in how our food is produced and why it is causing children (and adults) to develop numerous and never-before-seen food allergies.
- How the current regulations around food production are protecting big agriculture’s bottom line and not your child’s health.
- Robyn O’Brien’s positive approach to being a powerful catalyst for change in your community when it comes to the health of your children.
Rebecca Gauthier (RG): Hello everyone and thanks so much for tuning in for today’s interview with bestselling author, Robyn O’Brien, who has written an amazing book called The Unhealthy Truth and is called “Food’s Erin Brockovich” by both The New York Times and Bloomberg. She is also the Executive Director of the AllergyKids Foundation whose mission is to make clean and safe food affordable to all families and the founder of Mom’s Voices, a campaign to protect the health of children. She is a mother of four and a featured speaker at our 4th annual Women’s Wellness Conference™ coming up in Costa Mesa, California.
Robyn O’Brien (RO): It’s an honor to be part of this with you guys.
RG: Let’s start by you telling us a little bit about what caused you to become such a powerful advocate for clean, healthy food for kids.
RO: You know, it was a really unlikely story. I grew up in Texas in Houston and not only wasn’t I an advocate, I wasn’t clued into this at all. You know, we were just a typical Texas family eating ribs and chili cheese fries and really not thinking about it. We didn’t have to, thankfully.
But my husband and I, we moved to Colorado about 15 years ago, and we started our family here. We were just kind of rocking along, not really paying attention, and here in Colorado there really was this kind of growing awareness of cleaner food and organic.
I just thought, “Oh this is just a hobby or a nice little niche that these people had,” and then our kids got sick.
We had had four kids in 5 years and at that point I was, as any busy mom, just trying to get those kids to eat. When one of our children had an allergic reaction over breakfast one morning, it just stopped me in my tracks because I thought, “How am I supposed to do my job as a Mom if I can’t feed this kid food and what is going on with our food that it is suddenly making so many children so allergic?”
Prior to moving to Colorado, I had gone to business school on a full scholarship and graduated as top woman in my class, and I had been recruited by companies like Exxon and Enron®. I mean, I really was so far away from anything environmental or food related.
I went to work as an analyst on a team, an equity team, that managed 20 billion in assets and we were launching the company’s first hedge fund. We were doing all this really cool financial stuff and I was the only woman on the team. So the guys said, “We’re going to have you cover the food industry.”
Again, I really had zero interest in food. I had been raised drinking Diet Coke® and Snackwells™, and just really disconnected from it. So as I was learning the food industry, it was purely analytical just learning these business models. Then all of a sudden, when I saw what was happening, not only to the health of my child, but to all of these kids and the fact that this generation of American children has earned the title of “Generation RX” because of the rates of, not only food allergies, but autism and ADHD and diabetes and even things like cancer, I took a step back from that and I thought, “What is going on here?”
This is the future of our country. They are less than 30% of the population but they are 100% the future of our country. What is going on here?
All of a sudden all of that analytical, finance, data-driven background, I turned it full on onto analyzing what was going on with children’s health and what could be impacting it. All of a sudden, through these connections that I had here in Colorado that were further connecting me to scientists and different researchers, I was learning about some really fundamental and huge changes that had happened in our food system in the last 15 or 20 years.
I had this ability to really look at it, not only speaking the language of a mother of four, but also speaking this financial language that I had been so educated in.
It was really kind of a weapon because as I started reaching out to different organizations, they freaked out, and kind of had this allergic reaction to me, and again I thought, “This doesn’t make sense. Why is nobody talking about this junk in our food and how it can be impacting these kids?”
It was just something I couldn’t unlearn and so as I began to speak out about it, there were plenty of people that didn’t want me heard, and yet at the same time, I could step back and say, “We’re really one of the only developed countries in the world that have allowed for all these additives, all these genetically engineered ingredients, all these new things into our food without any long-term tests and I think we can do better than that.”
It was sort of this piece of me that was so patriotic and such an American where I thought, “We can do better than this. This is not our best food system. We can do better than this.” That was ten years ago today and to see where it’s come in the last ten years is pretty inspiring.
RG: A lot of changes have been made, but still, many more need to be made. It seems like all schools these days need to be nut free facilities because allergies to things like peanuts and so on and so forth are so common and can cause kids to die.
You mentioned some startling statistics in both your book and your website, robynobrien.com, which is a tremendous resource, and you talk about how allergies of all types are skyrocketing to the point where we’re really facing an epidemic. Food allergies send someone to the ER once every 3 minutes.
RO: It’s stepping back and realizing so much has changed. If you think about things like high fructose corn syrup that people are talking about all the time, it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Coke and Pepsi, on the same day said, “We’re going to drop sugar and add high fructose corn syrup in”. That was in the 1980s, so it’s not really all that far back.
Then in the 1990s, there was just a fundamental shift in the way that we approached agriculture in this country.
These chemical companies that were selling all these weed-killers like RoundUp® and all these things that are just sprayed on these fields to manage weeds and pests and insects, decided that they can genetically engineer the crops. They can literally change the DNA of the crop itself, of the seed, so that these plants can withstand increasing doses of these weedkillers.
When I learned that I thought, “This is the same stuff we’re told not to put under our kitchen sinks”. Every mom is told, “Do not put a bottle of RoundUp®, weed killer, under your kitchen sink or anywhere your kid can reach it.” Yet at the very same time, that is exactly what is being applied to our food crops.
So you know, it was this whole novel approach to food production. It was patented by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, brand new, had never existed before.
All of our key trading partners around the world, every country that we trade with in a significant way – Australia, New Zealand, Japan, all of Europe, Asia – they labeled them. China, India, Russia even. They labeled these new ingredients, these genetically modified ingredients; because they were new to the food supply; because they we didn’t have these long-term tests; because we didn’t have things like unique allergy tests specifically testing for how this may impact a child’s developing immune system, or a pregnant mom, or somebody with Alzheimer’s. They just exercised a level of precaution that we didn’t exercise here.
So as I was learning about this, I was meeting with the allergists and I said, “If a child is allergic to soy, are they allergic to the soy that has been in the food supply for hundreds of years or are they allergic to this new, RoundUp® raised soy, or are they allergic to this new RoundUp® ready soy that has been treated with glycophosate in the RoundUp®, or are they allergic to non-genetically engineered soy that has been treated?”
And I’d just get this like blank stare and they would say, “We have no idea, Robyn. We don’t have that level of testing.”
It was because we don’t have that level of testing, that countries around the world said, “We’re going to exercise precaution and we’re going to either label these things or we’re not going to allow them into our food.”
Here in the U.S. it challenged so much of my belief system in a lot of different ways because to realize that we hadn’t really had a conversation about it nationally was pretty jaw-dropping to me.
So as I looked at this data, from 1997 until 2007 there was a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions. 265%!
As you mentioned, a food allergic reaction sends someone to the ER once every 3 minutes.
So that’s not a mom diagnosing, that’s not someone that’s saying they are sensitive. That is somebody checking into the ER to see a medical professional once every three minutes.
So what has changed? Genetics don’t change that quickly. Something in the environment does.
So, I kept coming back to this question: Are we allergic to food or are we allergic to what’s been done to it?
You mentioned peanuts: The peanut allergy has quadrupled from 1997 until 2010 in that thirteen year period. So you know, again, it’s like, what changed in the mid 1990s?
The analyst in me with the financial expertise that I have, I know “correlation is not causation” and just because we see this massive uptick in the rate of hospitalizations and the rate of allergic reactions, at the same time we see this massive uptick in genetically engineered crops and all these pesticides and weed-killers that are sprayed at them, it doesn’t mean that that’s what’s solely responsible. But at the same time, that correlation was so strong that I just thought, “Correlation is not causation, but a correlation of that magnitude merits investigation.”
So you sit back and you look at the sale of EpiPens®. I mean, it’s skyrocketing and you’re right, as kids we didn’t know anybody that had a peanut allergy or a dairy allergy, and yet today, a cartoon of milk and a PB&J, a lot of people look at them as loaded weapons on a lunchroom table.
Since when? Since when did food have the ability to kill a kid the way we are seeing it today?
RG: The EPA just announced its plans to label the ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp as carcinogenic, which obviously is going to cause problems for the manufacturer.
RO: Yeah, and I think you have to step back and you have to think back to our grandmothers. There are plenty of people out there that are still going to say, “It’s fine. It’s safe. There is no evidence of harm.” But you need to think back and you need to remember those advertisements where it said, “4 out 5 doctors recommend Camel cigarettes.” You know? It’s like, we are in this same kind of stage that our grandmothers were in with the tobacco industry where it was sort of this “he said, she said” scientific debate where you had scientists on one side with a ton of industry funding saying one thing, and you had scientists on the other trying to sound these alarm bells.
I think it’s really intuitive and apparent and it doesn’t make sense to be literally surrounding everything in our children’s environment with this weed killer that the World Health Organization is now saying has this ingredient, glyphosate, that is a probable carcinogen.
This is the World Health Organization. This isn’t some wild-eyed activist over here. It is one of our country’s leading resources, the world’s leading resource, when it comes to protecting the health of people. That was a big step for them to have to take and I’m sure they’ve taken a TON of heat for it. I’ve seen it in the press from some of these chemical companies, but again, when you look at the rates of cancer in the United States, it is jaw-dropping.
The President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) reports that 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women in the United States are expected to get cancer in their lifetime and that cancer is now the leading cause of death by disease in American kids under the age of 15.
Just as we didn’t know anybody that had food allergies when we were little, we did not know as many people that have cancer today. So we know these cancer rates are skyrocketing and we know they are skyrocketing in kids.
You can look at the pharmaceutical drug companies again and look at the escalating rates of sales and revenue that the cancer drugs are driving for these different companies and again it’s like, this is real. This is really happening. So, what can we do about it?
As I was unearthing a lot of this data and this information in the early years of the work, it was terrifying. It was terrifying on absolutely every level. It was terrifying to realize that it had happened. It was terrifying to realize that just as our grandmother’s had been told cigarettes were safe for 50 years, here we were talking about something as intimate as food.
I don’t like operating from a place of fear, so I saw a lot of people who were advocates in the movement and they used fear and I just thought, I can’t do that. It has this very inward energy to it and I just thought, you know, this is a love-inspired movement.
If people can realize that we are really pushing for this change to clean up our food system so that this food is safe and affordable and accessible for all Americans, not just the people who can afford to shop in Whole Foods, but for all Americans, this is one of the most patriotic things we can be doing. If we can do it from that place of love that is for the health of our families and for the health of our country, that kind of energy I have found to be 100% contagious in the most awesome way.
RG: Thank you for everything that you’ve been doing to win so many battles on behalf of food and healthy living for ourselves and our children. You’ve paved the way for people like Vani Hari, “The Food Babe”, who also is hammering these big corporations and putting a lot of pressure on them to change their ingredients. Many people like her and David Wolfe, who will be hosting The Women’s Wellness Conference™, are really getting out there and spreading the message of eating organic, of looking at labels and learning how to read labels and what ingredients are, and what is going to help you versus what is going to harm you.
It’s all about education, which of course is empowerment, and that leads me to my very last question, which is: Can you give us a sneak peak into what you will be covering at the conference?
RO: The landscape of health has changed and we see that every time we turn around. We see it in our churches. We see it in our schools. We see it in our community and it’s real and here is the data because, I think, numbers don’t lie. They tell a very powerful story and you have to start with the data.
Then, from there, to be able to highlight the changes that we’ve created in the last ten years, and it is all hands on deck. We need absolutely everyone because there isn’t one messenger for everybody. You know, some people are going to respond to my work, others need somebody else, and I think we really truly need as many voices as possible in this movement today and thankfully that is happening, and to also highlight the companies that are getting it.
You know, companies like Kroger® where the CEO wasn’t 100% sure that he wanted to move with this space, back earlier in 2010 when they weren’t sure if it was still sort of a niche. Yet at the same time, he decided he was going to give his team some runway on this. So they launched the Simple Truth® product line and it was free from hundreds of additives and artificial ingredients, and then they also launched Simple Truth Organic®, which was obviously free from high fructose corn syrup and GMOs and all these other things. That brand, Simple Truth®, within Kroger® went from 0 to 1 billion in revenue in a two year period.
I think to have a mainstream retailer like that move in such a meaningful and significant way speaks to how we can do this together, and so my talk always will be people inspired, because we truly, truly need all hands on deck.
I think the reason people come to events and listen to interviews like this is because they somehow want to be part of that change. What I have seen over and over and over again is that all of us have unique skills and unique talents to offer to this movement, and when you combine that, and leverage that with what you’re passionate about, it is extraordinary the change that we can create.
RG: That’s why we put on these conferences. It really is a labor of love.
Gather people. Educate them so that they can go out and affect change in their families, in their communities, in society as a whole, and that’s why we do it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, we really appreciate it and we’re thrilled to have you at The Women’s Wellness Conference™, which is right around the corner, October 9th – 11th at the Hilton Costa Mesa in California.
Robyn O’Brien will be joined by other bestselling authors and speakers including Caroline Myss, Marianne Williamson, Dr. Alan Christianson. We have such a great line-up this year, packed with powerhouse speakers.
Everyone is invited. You can still get a ticket, but they are selling out fast, so register at the link listed below.
We’ll see you soon!
RO: Thank you so much!