Robyn O'Brien never thought too much about what was in her food until her youngest daughter suffered an allergic reaction to eggs one morning.
In response, O'Brien, 38 and a former Wall Street analyst, applied her research skills to her family's diet. It didn't take long to discover an alarming rise in childhood allergies.
In the past 15 years, says the Boulder resident, diagnoses of peanut allergies have doubled among children. And though milk still reigns supreme as the foremost childhood allergy, soy isn't far behind — due, she believes, to genetic alterations that help the beans withstand various pesticides.
When O'Brien learned that the ingredients in everyday foods like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese can have long-term detrimental side effects — she found correlations to conditions like ADHD, asthma, autism and certain types of cancer — she drastically altered her pantry. She introduced rBGH-free milk and more vegetables, and intermittently decreased the amount of powdered cheese mix she put in her children's mac 'n cheese until they learned that noodles "were actually a sort of white color, instead of neon."
And looking larger-scale — at an industry in which many food research companies are funded by the producers of the food they study — she founded an independently funded group called AllergyKids.
"As intimidating as the science can be," O'Brien says, "eaters all around the world have gotten their heads around it, and so can we. We have [a] remarkable ability to affect change."
O'Brien's activism attracted the attention of Random House, which urged her to weave her findings, as well as her personal journey, into a narrative on the darker side of the food industry. That effort, titled The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, hit shelves in May. On a national tour since then, the first-time author has appeared on CNN and received praise from Oprah Radio host Dr. Mehmet Oz, among others.