Home » About Us » Blog » April, 2011

Archive for April, 2011

“Welcome to the Lion’s Den”: Meeting Big Ag

April 20, 2011 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News

“You caught me on a really bad day” is how my meeting with Syngenta Seeds began.

“Oh?” I mustered (wondering what in the world I’d been thinking to even agree to a meeting with the North American head of this division and thought back to a presentation I’d given in Chicago to biotech farmers at which I’d been greeted at the door by one of them saying, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den”).

“Yeah,” said the Syngenta farmer. “ I’ve just spent the week with people like you in DC at EPA meetings about atrazine. You see, people like you think it causes all kinds of weird things in frogs. We’re getting away from science based decision making and into all of this emotional stuff, and it messes things up.”

I stood there. Took a breath and listened.

“We’ve been using this stuff for 60 years. We wouldn’t use it if it caused harm. The science is good,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. “The science is good” and he continued on.

And as I listened to him vent his frustrations, I began to hear something else. Something other than the words that were pouring out of his mouth. I heard the insult.

Because before me stood a fourth generation farmer whose family had dedicated their lives to feeding our country for over 100 years, not some evil doer, chemical wielding mad scientist in a lab coat. And as he spoke about his family’s dedication to the land, I realized that he was insulted by the recent attack on his trade, his livelihood, his family. The affront on farming was personal, and it hurt.

So I listened to him speak of these injuries and asked what his family knew. And he spoke about a stewardship of the land, learned at his grandfather’s knee. He spoke of what he called “A Dance with Mother Nature,” saying “She always leads, man, you can never forget that. She always leads.”

And he spoke of “Sustainability” and what it meant to him, saying, “Responsibility. It is our responsibility. We have to get this right. Everything depends on it. Our food. Our health. Our soil. We have to get this right. It’s not a choice – it’s survival.”

And I nodded in complete agreement.

And then I responded, “You must feel insulted when people attack farming and modern day agriculture, especially as a fourth generation farmer whose family has fed our nation for over 100 years.”

He nodded. Without speaking.

“I am so sorry,” I said. And with that, he came into the conference room, and we all sat down.

And so began my afternoon at Syngenta Seeds.

And as we sat at the table together, we began to share stories and exchange insight. And we realized that there was far more that united us than divided us.

We spoke of the food system and Monsanto’s monopoly over the seed supply. We spoke of the licensing fees, trait fees, patents and technology agreements that Monsanto now has in place in farming – and questioned what his grandfather would have thought of the privatization of agriculture and the patenting of the food supply. We spoke of the distribution of nicotinic acid in wheat, of gluten and of Celiac Disease.

We spoke of the declining health of the American children (“I have kids, too,” he said), the urgent need to address their disrupted immune systems, and we spoke of declining farm incomes and the need to address the associated debt loads. We spoke of predatory practices in agriculture and in the food system, of agrichemical corporations “too big to fail” and of the need for the regulation of competition and of monopolies,of leverage over pricing and innovation and of the unintended consequences on progress if we fail to fix our food system.

And we spoke of industry funded science, both in the world of biotechnology and genetically modified proteins and in the food allergy world.

“Did you know that Monsanto has been funding our nation’s leading allergists?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t” he said. As his colleague added, “But man, we see that in our parts, too. Bayer started funding Ducks Unlimited a while back.”

And we all nodded. Not a word spoken, yet understanding the heavy implications on all levels.

For three hours, we shared stories, insights and expertise. I learned more about technology fees and the new cost structures associated with biotech farming, and I shared information about how industry funded science can be detrimental to the health of our families.

“Sometimes it just gets depressing,” he said. “It just seems like too much. I mean, what can one person do?”

“You can do a lot,” I said. “Look at what we are doing now.” And with that, I asked for a tour of their facility.

And with pride, the fourth generation farmers of Syngenta Seeds showed me their greenhouse, their wheat testing facility and their bread baking kitchen. They showed me how their warehouse recycled enormous amounts of water, preserving natural resources, and spoke of how no-till technology sequestered carbon (capturing several times over the equivalent of global fossil fuel usage).

They shared how it takes 8-10 years to develop a grain (as long as I have been a mother) and we laughed over the emotional investment involved in both.

And as we walked through their warehouse, I shared the concern of parents whose children now have autism, cancer and allergies. And they nodded, in complete agreement, as parents, too.

And as our afternoon drew to a close, we hesitated to separate, knowing all too well that it had been a rare day – one in which we’d come together as stewards of our children’s food supply, sitting down at the table together. And there was a touch of sadness knowing that these occasions were too few and far between.

And as I turned to go, I asked, “Would you like a copy of my book?” and quietly, the Syngenta team said, “Yes.”

And with that, I inscribed:

To the Syngenta Gang,
Thank you for the important dialogue.
With inspired hope for the health of our children,
Robyn O’Brien

And I turned and left, with inspired hope for the health of our children.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~Winston Churchill

This article was written by Robyn O’Brien and originally appeared on the AllergyKids Foundation site on July 24, 2010

What’s Gotten Into Us?

April 17, 2011 •  one comment.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized
This article is an adapted excerpt from McKay Jenkins’ new book, “What’s Gotten Into Us?,” available April 14 and appeared on www.salon.com

On a crisp fall afternoon a couple of years ago, I went in for a routine two-year checkup with my internist. Everything seemed to be fine: My home life was happy and nurturing. I had never smoked. I ate right, got plenty of rest, and had been a dedicated runner and cyclist my entire adult life. Save for the usual aches and pains, nothing had ever been wrong with my body, and as long as I was smart about it, I figured, I’d still be riding my Fausto Coppi racing bike well into my ’80s.

My only complaint, I told my doctor, was a faint tightness in my hip that I had felt off and on for two years — and odd, sharp twinges between my left thigh, knee and shin that occasionally accompanied it. My internist looked me over and agreed that my pains were probably related to exercise, and he suggested I see an orthopedist at a nearby sports medicine clinic. The orthopedist, in turn, suggested I get an MRI to help him see a bit more clearly what was going on with my soft tissue.

I was standing in my living room when the phone rang just a few hours later. When I picked up the phone and heard the orthopedist’s voice, I knew even before he spoke that something was amiss. “Hello, Mr. Jenkins,” he said, then paused. “You have a suspicious mass in your abdomen,” he said. “It’s growing inside your left hip. Here is the number for an oncologist. You need to call him right away.”

What can you say about such moments? I remember hanging up the phone. I remember looking at my wife, Katherine, and looking at my children putting together a puzzle on the floor in the next room. My son was 4, my daughter not yet 18 months. I fell apart.

Katherine and I passed the next three weeks in a kind of silent panic. When I met with my oncologist, he sketched out what he thought was going on. Although he couldn’t be certain without further tests, the tumor was likely a soft-tissue sarcoma, an ugly cancer of the fibers connecting my hip to the muscles and nerve tissues of my left leg. The prognosis depended on how big the tumor was, where precisely it was growing, exactly how aggressive it was.

At worst, this was, well, very bad. At best, a surgeon could cut out the tumor, but might be compelled to sever my femoral nerve, the trunk line that connects the nerves in the leg to the spine. Which meant I would probably never run or ride my bike again. And then I’d have to remain vigilant to see if the cancer returned. To this day, the ride home has remained indelible.

This was really happening. But how? This was not a grinding descent into illness; it was a bolt from the blue. I did not feel sick, and never had. My mind raced. How could I possibly have cancer? A few weeks later, I was being prepared for surgery at the hospital when two researchers approached me with questions. The first ones were pretty standard: What ethnic group best describes you? Um, white. How far did you make it in school? I have a Ph.D., I said. How many packs of cigarettes have you smoked per day, on average? None, I said. Ever. Then the questions changed, from ones I had been asked by doctors dozens of times before to ones I had never been asked in my life.

How much exposure had I had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants? In my life? I asked. This seemed like an odd question. What kind of chemicals do you mean? The researcher began reading from a list, which turned out to be long. Some things I had heard of, many others I had not. Metal filings? Asbestos dust? Cutting oils? I didn’t think so. What’s a cutting oil? How about gasoline exhaust? Asphalt? Foam insulation? Natural gas fumes?

Where was this going?

The words kept coming. Vinyl chloride? I wasn’t sure. What was that? How about plastics? Are you kidding? Everything is made of plastic. Dry-cleaning agents? Detergents or fumes from plastic meat wrap? Benzene or other solvents? Formaldehyde? Varnishes? Adhesives? Lacquers? Glues? Acrylic or oil paints? Inks or dyes? Tanning solutions? Cotton textiles? Fiberglass? Bug killers or pesticides? Weed killers or herbicides? Heat-transfer fluids? Hydraulic lubricants? Electricfluids? Flame retardants?

By now I had begun to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Not about my history of “industrial” exposures, which were nonexistent, but about the myriad, and mostly invisible, chemicals the researchers seemed to be curious about. What was a flame retardant, exactly, and how in the world would I know if I had been exposed to one? I had never used pesticides, but Lord knows there were plenty in my neighborhood.

A couple of hours later, a doctor led me into the operating room, and I lay down on the table. A moment later, it seemed, I awoke. My eyes felt fuzzy, and blurred by bright overhead lights. Where was I? I blinked. There, at the foot of my bed, stood Katherine and my surgeon. Both were beaming. Something must have gone well, I thought. You’re a lucky man, the doctor said. The tumor was as big as an orange, but it turned out to be growing out of a nerve cell rather than a muscle cell. We sent a slice of it down to the lab; it turned out to be benign. Of a hundred cases like this, about four turn out this way. Not only that, we managed to peel the tumor off your femoral nerve. Once you recover, you can get back to running and riding your bike. You’re a very lucky man.

And so I was.

As joyful as my outcome had been, I was left feeling somehow bereft. Had this whole thing been bad luck? Where had this tumor, this navel orange, come from? It wasn’t until I’d answered the hospital questionnaire that I had ever even considered the vast arrays of chemicals I had been exposed to over the years. Was it possible that the questions constituted a trail of bread crumbs that could lead me to some answers? Suddenly, these questions began to take on a whole new sense of urgency.

In the four years that have passed since my surgery, cancer has burned its way through a swath of my family and friends. My beloved aunt Julie recently passed from a combination of breast cancer, bone marrow cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. My friend Scott, still in his 40s, just learned that he has pancreatic cancer. Like me, he has small children. So do Leah and Suzie and Susan, young women who have all recently suffered terrible bouts with breast cancer. My cousin’s husband, Phil, died of a brain tumor before his 40th birthday. He left a wife and a young daughter. And on and on and on.

What is going on here?

No one goes through a cancer scare without experiencing a kind of awakening. Here’s what mine looked like: I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to feeling an intimate desire to prevent that suffering. I wanted to know if there were root causes. I wanted to try to see things just as they are, how they came to be that way, and what I could do to protect myself and my children.

It’s worth thinking about what a relatively short time we’ve been swimming in synthetic chemicals. The Synthetic Century, let us say, has been full of grand achievements and equally grand consequences, many of them unintended. In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen, a key component of soil, and thus “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” But during World War I, his technology also helped Germany make bombs from synthetic nitrate and, later, poison chlorine and phosgene gas. In World War II, Hitler used another one of Haber’s compounds, Zyklon B, in Nazi concentration camps. After the wars, synthetic fertilizers paved the way for the explosion of industrial-scale agribusiness, which has, in turn, created great wealth but also unprecedented levels of pollution, monoculture and processed foods.

In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan outlines the way our industrial food chain floats on an ocean of cheap oil. This is also true of our vast array of consumer products. Although coal companies in the mid-1800s were processing coal gas for lighting and synthesizing other products like dyes, this was but a baby step compared to what happened a hundred years later. Since World War II, Big Oil and, more recently, Big Coal and Big Natural Gas, have supplied our economy not just with energy for our homes and cars but with the very building blocks of our domestic lives: not only our plastics but our fertilizers and pesticides, our furniture, our personal care products, even our clothing. Consider this: in the last 25 years, the country’s consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased 8,200 percent.

The trouble with such rapid proliferation of products made from petrochemicals, of course, has been that the production and use of synthetic chemicals has vastly outpaced our ability to monitor their effects on our health and the environment. We learned to love what chemicals could make; we just never bothered to wonder if there could be a downside. By the mid-1970s, there were some 62,000 chemicals in use; today the number is thought to be closer to 80,000. The EPA has a full set of toxicity information for just 7 percent of these chemicals, and the U.S. chemical industry, a $637-billion-a-year business, is so woefully underregulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health. Fewer than 3 percent of these chemicals have ever been tested for carcinogenicity. Far fewer (or none) have been assessed for their effect on things like the human endocrine system or reproductive health.

The human immune system has evolved over millennia to combat naturally occurring bacterial and viral agents. It has had only a few decades to adjust to most man-made contaminants, many of which are chemically similar to substances produced naturally by our own bodies. The effects of this are far from fully understood. “We face an ocean of biologically active synthetic organic compounds,” the ecologist Sandra Steingraber writes. “Some interfere with our hormones, some attach to chromosomes, some cripple the immune system, some overstimulate certain enzymes. If we could metabolize them into benign compounds and excrete them, they would be less of a worry. Instead, many accumulate. So they are doubly bad: they are similar enough to react with us, but different enough not to go away easily.”

What becomes clear, if you stop to think about it, is that what’s gotten into us is not just chemicals but culture. We aren’t just saturated with chemicals, after all; we are saturated with products, and marketing, and advertising, and political lobbying. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to see advertisements for DDT featuring an aproned housewife in spike heels and a pith helmet aiming a spray gun at two giant cockroaches standing on her kitchen counter. The caption below reads, “Super Ammunition for the Continued Battle on the Home Front.” Another ad shows a picture of a different aproned woman standing in a chorus line of dancing farm animals, who sing, “DDT is good for me!” DDT was marketed as the “atomic bomb of the insect world,” but also as “benign” for human beings. And we believed it.

Our ignorance is not an accident. We are not meant to know what goes into the products we use every day. The manufacturers of most American-made products tend to keep the ingredients and formulations of their products secret, and rarely mention that individual ingredients might (or do) cause cancer, or impede fetal development, or lead to hormone imbalances. It seems that the intention in packaging is to make information harder to find, not easier — an imitation of information, not information itself. With so little information, it’s easy to see why we have become so complacent. And why we have allowed ourselves to live, albeit uncomfortably, with assurances that these products are “safe.” A single exposure to these chemicals never killed anyone, we tell ourselves. This is true. But smoking a single cigarette never killed anyone, either. The trouble with exposure to toxic chemicals, as with exposure to tobacco, is that the impact is cumulative, long-lasting and, frequently, slow to reveal itself.

So here we are.

Almost 50 years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and the tide of synthetic chemicals is only rising. We are faced, every day, with an overwhelming number of choices as consumers: Do I choose this detergent or that one? This mattress or that one? The chemical lawn-care company or the “green” one? This shouldn’t be so hard. We’re talking about washing our children’s hair. Or cleaning the sink. Or tending a garden. Why has this become so complicated? And on what information do we make our decisions?

The most important thing, as I have said, is finding the courage to see things clearly. But as I have learned, when it comes to toxic chemicals, seeing things clearly is harder than you might imagine. Every choice we make is a bargain with the devil. You go to get your suits dry-cleaned, only to learn that dry cleaners rely on perchloroethylene, or perc, a known carcinogen. Is having crisp creases worth the risk? You want to wash your infant’s hair. What could be more benign than baby shampoo? But look closer at the label on the bottle: the baby shampoo contains formaldehyde, which causes cancer and compromises the immune system. The more alienated we get from the things we use every day, the more confused we get. The more confused we get, the dumber we feel. The dumber we feel, the less confident we are in our decisions. The less confident we are, the more susceptible we become to the suggestion that everything is as it should be, that the experts (the manufacturers, the regulators) are keeping an eye on things. The more we bury our worries under such shaky ground, the more abstracted we become.

As overwhelming as some of the scientific evidence about our consumer products can seem, there can be real liberation in learning to look at things with clear and unblinking eyes. A good part of this has to do with reconnecting with our things. With understanding what things are for, and how they are made, and by whom. It’s worth relearning some of what we’ve forgotten. How to build and furnish and clean our houses. How to care for our lawns. How to feed and clothe and bathe our children. Strangely enough, you might find that some of these old ways actually feel empowering. We’ve been bombarded with advertising and marketing ploys for so many years that we have tended to make decisions out of unconscious habit rather than conscious choice. Not only is it increasingly clear that there is physical risk in such habits, there is also a genuine psychological sacrifice.

In the moment when we reach unthinkingly for a product, we suspend judgment and even, at times, common sense. When we act unconsciously, we implicitly grant authority — and trust — to what manufacturers have told us, that a product is “safe.” But the truth is, whether the product is an apple, a T-bone steak, a can of air freshener, or a mattress makes no difference: we have no idea what has gone into creating the product, even if someone, somewhere, has assured us that the product is benign. In many, many cases, this is clearly no longer true. And as the physical and psychological distance has grown between us and the products we consume, we have traded an intimate knowledge for a vague and anxious “trust,” a feeling that is inevitably accompanied by its darker corollary, fear and loss of control. This does not seem like a fair trade.

Excerpted from “What’s Gotten into Us?” by McKay Jenkins Copyright © 2011 by Mckay Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

McKay Jenkins is the Cornelius A. Tilghman Professor of English and director of journalism at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “The Last Ridge,” “The White Death” and “Bloody Falls of the Coppermine.”

Moo-ve Over Moms: Genetically Modified Cows to Make “Human-Like” Milk

April 4, 2011 •  4 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Written by Robyn O’Brien

“… your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm (from Jurassic Park)

Scientists claim to have successfully introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows to produce milk with the same properties as human breast milk.

Apparently, the researchers used cloning technology to introduce human genes into the DNA of Holstein dairy cows before the genetically modified embryos were implanted into surrogate cows. “We aim to commercialize some research in this area in coming three years…for the “human-like milk”, say the researchers.

Holy cow, you say, right? And all for the commercialization of a product that moms have been engineering for years.

Human milk contains the ‘just right’ proportions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins for an infant’s optimal growth and development. But since there isn’t an open market for breast milk, scientists have humanized bovine milk from cows in order to create that product.

“The milk tastes stronger than normal milk,” said Professor Ning Li, lead research author and director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University

According to the Telegraph, a British newspaper reporting on the subject:

“Writing in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science One, the researchers said they were able to create cows that produced milk containing a human protein called lysozyme. Lysozyme is an antimicrobial protein naturally found in large quantities in human breast milk. It helps to protect infants from bacterial infections during their early days of life.

In all, the scientists said they have produced a herd of around 300 cows that are able to produce human-like milk. The transgenic animals are physically (emphasis added) identical to ordinary cows.”

It all sounds pretty harmless, right? (Except, of course, if you stop for a moment to consider the fact that the genes of someone that you’ve never met have been patented, licensed and structured into a royalty agreement before being genetically engineered into dairy cows ).

According to the article, with the insertion of human genes into animals, scientists have created these transgenic (cross-species) dairy cows.

But here is where things get interesting. According to the researchers,:

“During two experiments by the Chinese researchers, which resulted in 42 transgenic calves being born, just 26 of the animals survived after ten died shortly after birth, most with gastrointestinal disease, and a further six died within six months of birth.”

For those that don’t have a calculator on hand, the death by gastrointestinal disease that apparently resulted from the transgenic modification led to 16 out of the 42 cows dying in the first 6 months of birth…or a 38% death rate.

In the face of the evidence, “the researchers accept that the cloning technology used in genetic modification can affect the development and survival of cloned animals, although the reason why is not well understood.”

Although the first genetically engineered products were introduced in the United States just over 15 years ago, global consensus is that these products have not yet been proven safe. For this reason, and due to the lack of clinical trials that have proven their safety, governments around the world have either not allowed genetically modified products and ingredients into their food supply or have insisted on their labeling so that consumers can make an informed choice.

In the U.S., we took a different approach. Based on a conceptual tool introduced by the biotech industry in 1991 called “substantial equivalence”, the FDA allowed the widespread introduction of genetically engineered products into our food supply unlabeled despite concerns that these foods had not yet been proven safe and might introduce new allergens into the food supply.

And while correlation is not causation, the recent 265% increase in hospitalization’s related to food allergic reactions recently documented by the Centers for Disease Control might suggest that the U.S. is a little bit late to this party in terms of the labeling of these genetically engineered proteins and the concerns over allergenicity that were cited by Edward Brandt in a 2002 Biotechnology Subcommittee Meeting of the FDA.

As governments around the world continue to exercise precaution and insist on the labeling of these genetically engineered products if/when used in the food supply, perhaps it is time for the FDA to do the same and adopt the precautionary principal being used by other developed countries and call on American food manufacturers to also label them.

Because while these cloned cows might still be a few years away from commercialization, The Money Times reports that the FDA has cleared for approval the first genetically modified animal for entry into the U.S. food supply this year, a fish that has been engineered to double its weight in half the time. With the expected introduction of this genetically modfied fish into the American food supply, the FDA will be establishing a precedent for the introduction of future products from transgenic and genetically engineered animals.

If the FDA fails to pause and exercise the same level of precaution that governments around the world are already exercising and insist on the labeling of these novel foods, any risks and costs associated with the introduction of these genetically engineered products will continue to be externalized onto the health of the American public without our informed consent.

And while parents are genetically hardwired to protect the health of their children, to expect them to do so without the labeling of these genetically engineered products in the United States is unprecedented and irresponsible.

Because while our children may only represent 30% of the population, they represent 100% of our future. It’s time that the FDA values their lives accordingly.

Learn what you can do at www.gmoawareness.org

One Mom’s Inspiring Story

April 3, 2011 •  2 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Written by Melanie Lundheim, freelance writer, founder of GoodCopyFast.com, NutSafeSchools.wordpress.com and long-time friend of the AllergyKids Foundation

Back in 2002, my 14-month-old son, Soren, had his first exposure to peanut in the form of a cracker crumb that merely touched his lips.

Within seconds, his face swelled up and broke out in hives. At the time, the concepts of food allergies and anaphylaxis were not on my radar, so I was unprepared to respond appropriately to his reaction.

Fortunately, Soren’s symptoms subsided on their own after washing. But seeing his reaction prompted me to get him tested for food allergies as soon as possible.

Sure enough, Soren, who had already suffered from eczema and asthma, tested allergic to peanut. So allergic, in fact, that the doctor warned my husband and me not to even spell the word “peanut” in front of him.

The doctor was joking, of course, but he drove the point home: Soren’s peanut allergy is life threatening.

From then on, our lives changed. My husband and I got into the habit of having our son’s life-saving medication with us at all times. We armed ourselves with information about food allergies. Then we began to educate our loved ones about how to help keep Soren safe.

Together, my husband and I took all steps necessary to prepare for, prevent, recognize, and respond to peanut exposures in Soren.

When it came time to educate Soren, now 10, about his peanut allergy (and our daughter, Tessa, now 8, about her peanut- and tree-nut allergies) our quest for kids’ resources came up almost empty. The few books we found on the subject, which featured hand-drawn illustrations of the allergens, gave us the idea to commission a photographer to take photos of peanuts and tree nuts inside and outside their shells.

The photos were a great way to show our kids what the foods they’re allergic to look like. Together, my husband, kids, and I decided to find a way to share the photos with other peanut- and tree-nut-allergic children in the form of a free book. We wrote the content, which also discussed where the allergens might hide, how to check ingredients, why to carry life-saving medication at all times, and ways to stay safe. But when the book was complete, we quickly realized that printing and distributing a free book is cost-prohibitive to fund!

So we put the project on the back burner. I channeled my creative energy into my corporate freelance writing career, continuing to blog about food allergies on the side. To minimally make our peanut- and tree-nut photos available to the masses, we created a free, giveaway poster.

But it wasn’t until this past week that I realized how we could complete our Kids’ Allergies: Peanuts and Tree Nuts project. Rather than try to self-publish a book, we could put the information and photos we had compiled over the years into a free, printable presentation at our blogsite, and make it viewable as an audio book on YouTube.

I credit Food-allergy Musician and Educator Kyle Dine for inspiring me to act upon seeing his engaging performance at our kids’ school. Thanks to him, I sat down, learned how to use my computer’s presentation creation software, and within a week, created printable and viewable versions of the presentation, uploaded them to my blogsite and YouTube channel, then announced them to the world.

It was a great honor to hear back, first, from Robyn O’Brien, founder of AllergyKidsFoundation, nationally recognized food-safety speaker, and author of The Unhealthy Truth. She invited me to contribute my story to her blog. It is my hope that, like Kyle Dine inspired me, our project will inspire you. How can you cultivate and leverage your talents to create a safer world for our kids?

ADHD: It’s The Food

April 2, 2011 •  2 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Written by Kristin Wartman and originally published by Civil Eats

Over five million children ages four to 17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States and close to 3 million of those children take medication for their symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But a new study reported in The Lancet last month found that with a restricted diet alone, many children experienced a significant reduction in symptoms. The study’s lead author, Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands, said in an interview with NPR, “The teachers thought it was so strange that the diet would change the behavior of the child as thoroughly as they saw it. It was a miracle, the teachers said.”

Dr. Pessler’s study is the first to conclusively say that diet is implicated in ADHD. In the NPR interview, Dr. Pessler did not mince words, “Food is the main cause of ADHD,” she said adding, “After the diet, they were just normal children with normal behavior. They were no longer more easily distracted, they were no more forgetful, there were no more temper-tantrums.” The study found that in 64 percent of children with ADHD, the symptoms were caused by food. “It’s a hypersensitivity reaction to food,” Pessler said. (Flickr image: by Scorpions and Centaurs)

Dr. Pessler’s study is the first to conclusively say that diet is implicated in ADHD. In the NPR interview, Dr. Pessler did not mince words, “Food is the main cause of ADHD,” she said adding, “After the diet, they were just normal children with normal behavior. They were no longer more easily distracted, they were no more forgetful, there were no more temper-tantrums.” The study found that in 64 percent of children with ADHD, the symptoms were caused by food. “It’s a hypersensitivity reaction to food,” Pessler said.

This is good news for parents and children who would like to avoid many of the adverse side effects associated with common stimulant drugs like Ritalin used to treat ADHD—and bad news for the pharmaceutical industry. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that common side effects from the drugs are sleeplessness (for which a doctor might also prescribe sleeping pills) headaches and stomachaches, decreased appetite, and a long list of much more frightening (yet rarer) side effects, including feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless, and new or worsening depression. But Pessler’s study indicates that up to two-thirds or two of the three million children currently medicated for ADHD may not need medication at all. “With all children, we should start with diet research,” Pessler said.

There are also questions about the long-term effects of stimulant drugs and growth in children. After three years on Ritalin, children were about an inch shorter and 4.4 pounds lighter than their peers, according to a major study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2007. A 2010 study in the Journal of Pediatrics disputed these findings, but all the study’s authors had relationships with drug companies, some of which make stimulants. According to Reuters, “The lead author, Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph Biederman, was once called out by Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley for the consulting fees he has received from such drug makers.”

This is just one example of how the powerful billion-dollar drug industry designs and interprets studies to suit their interests. Since the 1970s, researchers not tied to drug companies have been drawing connections between foods, food additives, and the symptoms associated with ADHD but many have been dismissed or overlooked by conventional medicine. One of the earliest researchers in this field was Dr. Benjamin Feingold who created a specific diet to address behavioral and developmental problems in children. The Feingold diet, as it is now called, recommends removing all food additives, dyes, and preservatives commonly found in the majority of industrial foods.

There are a multitude of credible scientific studies to indicate that diet plays a large role in the development of ADHD. One study found that the depletion of zinc and copper in children was more prevalent in children with ADHD. Another study found that one particular dye acts as a “central excitatory agent able to induce hyperkinetic behavior.” And yet another study suggests that the combination of various common food additives appears to have a neurotoxic effect—pointing to the important fact that while low levels of individual food additives may be regarded as safe for human consumption, we must also consider the combined effects of the vast array of food additives that are now prevalent in our food supply.

In Pessler’s study the children were placed on a restricted diet consisting of water, rice, turkey, lamb, lettuce, carrots, pears and other hypoallergenic foods—in other words, real, whole foods. This means that by default the diet contained very few, if any, food additives.

As I see it, there are two factors at work in this study: One being the allergic reaction to the actual foods themselves and the second being a possible reaction to food additives, or combinations of food additives, found in industrial foods. Both certainly could be at play in the results of this study, although the discussion of Dr. Pessler’s study thus far hasn’t addressed the latter issue.

One theme in the discussion of the story has been skepticism from mainstream media—the recent Los Angeles Times article (the only major daily newspaper to cover the study) was very skeptical, if not dismissive. The author writes, “Previous studies have found similar effects, but, like this one, they all had fundamental problems that made it easy for doctors to dismiss them.” NPR interviewer, Guy Raz asked a question invoking this tone as well, “Now, you’re not saying that some children with ADHD should not be given medication, right?” Pessler does say that there are some children and adults who might benefit from pharmaceuticals but her research indicates that far too many are being medicated unnecessarily—and this is the crux of the story.

The Los Angeles Times article ends on this note: “‘To be sure, the prospect of treating ADHD with diet instead of drugs would appeal to many parents,’ Dr. Jaswinder Ghuman, a child psychiatrist who treats ADHD says. ‘But parents who want to give it a try should be sure to consult their child’s physician first, she warned: ‘It’s not that simple to do appropriately.’”

Call me old-fashioned, but changing your child’s diet seems a lot “simpler” than altering his or her brain chemistry with a daily dose of pharmaceuticals. It does takes patience, trial and error, and commitment to complete an elimination diet—taking a pill to target symptoms certainly requires less effort on the part of the doctors, family and child. While no one is denying that ADHD is a complicated web of symptoms with potentially many contributing factors, why not start by examining the most basic and fundamental cornerstone of our health—the foods (and non-foods) we put into our bodies.

© 2011 Civil Eats www.civileats.com

Kristin Wartman is a food writer living in Brooklyn. She has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Nutrition Educator. She is interested in the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. You can read more of her writing at kristinwartman.wordpress.com.