Ten years ago, a plate of scrambled eggs changed my life.
I thought nothing about the blue yogurt I’d put out for breakfast for my four little kids, or the plate of scrambled eggs. Not until our youngest started to fuss. I thought she was tired, so I put her down for a nap.
For some reason, which I still cannot explain, I went to check on her, and her face was swollen shut. I raced her to the emergency room.
“This looks like an allergic reaction,” the pediatrician said. “What did you feed the kids for breakfast?” And she started rattling off data on food allergies. A life threatening allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the U.S. once every three minutes.
The condition now impacts 1 in 13 kids, 2 kids in every classroom.
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My heart raced as I watched my baby struggle to breathe, and as we got her under control, I wanted to understand what was happening: why do so many American children now have food allergies?
Nothing could have prepared me for what I would uncover.
Before having kids, I worked in the world of finance. I’d been an equity analyst on a team that managed $20 billion in assets. I was the only woman on the team, and I covered the food industry, so I understood why the food industry had removed real ingredients from their products and replaced them with fake ones: it drove margins and profitability.
But I’d never thought to ask what all of this was doing to the health of our families.
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From 1997-2007, the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions increased 265%, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Today, the life-saving device, EpiPen, is now a $1 billion brand.
The number of people with peanut allergy in the United States more than quadrupled since 1997. And it isn’t just peanuts, milk, soy, corn and other allergies are all increasing at record rates. Genetics don’t change this quickly. So what has?
Researchers reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that the costs of food allergies, from medical care to food to pharmaceuticals is $4,184 per child per year, costing our economy $25 billion, including lost productivity.
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To discount this condition in any way is irresponsible.
Thankfully, not everyone is.
Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft, recently acquired Enjoy Life Foods, a well-loved brand in the allergy space. It was a $40 million company, and it was acquired for $130 million. The plan is to grow it into a billion-dollar brand. The company is free from genetically engineered ingredients, allergens and artificial additives.
In the United States, we are quickly learning that our food supply contains a lot of ingredients that simply did not exist when we were kids, from artificial food dyes and artificial growth hormones, to excess levels of pesticides now used on genetically engineered foods (GMOs).
But it isn’t like this in other countries, and our own American corporations don’t use these ingredients in the products they sell overseas. That double standard is tough to swallow.
So are we allergic to food – or are we allergic to what’s been done to it in America?
With no labels on things like GMOs in the U.S., the biotech industry is able to claim that there is not a single documented case of these foods ever causing harm. There is no evidence without labels, because there is no traceability – there is just the escalating rates of allergic diseases in our families.
Correlation is not causation, but as a growing number of consumers opt out of these artificial and genetically engineered ingredients, companies are, too. Target, Costco, Chipotle, Kroger, General Mills and Cheerios have responded to this demand for “free-from” food and are producing more foods free-from allergens, artificial dyes, GMOs and artificial ingredients.
It can’t happen fast enough.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that living in the United States “significantly” increases your risk of allergic disease.
“Children born outside the United States had significantly lower prevalence of any allergic diseases (20.3%) than those born in the United States (34.5%),” said the study led by Jonathan Silverberg of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.
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According to Reuters and Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who studies allergies at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, “Food allergies have increased tremendously,” she told Reuters Health. “We do see people who come from other countries don’t tend to have it.”
So are we allergic to food – or to what’s been done to it in America? Especially as other countries take precautions that we haven’t and keep things like GMOs out of their food products?
The skyrocketing number of American dealing with food allergies should serve as an alarm to rethink our food.
Food allergies are not a “niche,” just as cancer is not a fad.
It’s time to #rethinkfood. The future of our country’s economy and our quality of life depends on it.
About this guest author
Robyn O’Brien, a mother of four, recently spoke at a Tony Robbins Platinum event on the current state of the organic food industry. The New York Times has described her as “Food’s Erin Brockovich.”
A former financial analyst, she is the author of “The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It” and has a popular TEDx talk that you can view here.
Robyn is known for her detailed analysis of the food industry and communicating the impact that the global food system is having on the health of our children.
She is the founder of the Allergy Kids Foundation and was named by Forbes as one of “20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter.” You can follow her there or go to www.robynobrien.com to learn more about her incredible work.