Robyn O'Brien on Food Allergy Kids & Advice for Parents


Robyn O'Brien, founder of allergykids.comWe recently had the opportunity to interview Robyn O'Brien, founder of allergykids.com, about why she started the website and how other parents can make life safer for their own allergy kids.

"I have four children between the ages of two and seven," explains O'Brien, "and a year and a half ago, my fourth child had an allergic reaction to scrambled eggs for breakfast. I had no background with food allergies. It's not in my family. It's in my husband's family. So I was caught completely flat-footed.

"I was stunned at how quickly her reaction took place and how ignorant I was to the whole world of food allergies, how prevalent they are, and how they have increased so dramatically in the last 10 years.

Food Allergies in Kids

"The statistics say that one out of every 17 children under the age of three have food allergies, and those statistics are five years old. They're from 2002. Statistics out of Europe and out of China suggest that the number is a minimum of one out of 10 and probably much closer to one out of eight, but in the U.S., no studies have been funded since 2002, so our data is pretty old."

"And so," continues O'Brien, "in an effort really to protect my daughter and our own family, we designed a symbol that would come to symbolize my daughter, so that our kids would understand that she has a food allergy. And the symbol is also how we were going to let other people know about the allergy.

"As I researched it, I thought that there needs to be some type of universal 'pink ribbon' symbol for the food allergy world, and so that's what we designed.

"The day that my daughter had the reaction, I came home and sat down and thought, 'What can I design that makes people stop?' So I framed it with the stop sign; I knew it had to be a stop sign. I needed something that a child would tolerate and that a three-year-old would understand - because at that time, I had a three-year-old, four-year-old, and five-year-old, and only my five-year-old could read, so I thought that I had to be able to convey a message to a child that can't read. I thought that bright green was a friendly color that a kid would tolerate. I worked through several variations and came back to the exclamation point because I thought it needed to be something that any mom could duplicate, so she could draw it on a brown bag lunch if she had to. It had to be simple and straightforward. So it came from having these four young children and having to break it down in a simple way that they could understand.

Bag Lunch Avoid Food Allergies"But at the same time, if a mother sees a child at a birthday party with the food allergy symbol on his shirt, then she should understand that it's trying to convey a message, and she could ask the child, 'What does that mean?' And he can tell you he has food allergies. The real issue is that these children don't look any different, you know? It's not like they have an obvious handicap like a wheelchair. They don't look any different at all, and that's where the danger is; that's why mistakes can occur."

"We've got the symbol," says O'Brien, "but it goes so much farther than that - it's also about the meals that you feed your kids, what takes place at school, and everything else."

Helping Parents of Allergy Kids

"We launched allergykids.com last Mother's Day," continues O'Brien, "and it was pretty remarkable because it spoke to an unaddressed need in the marketplace, I think. It was amazing. We went on CNN within about a month, and it got picked up by the press really quickly.

"As we started a whole different level of research, we looked at everything that was really going on - like changes in the food in the food supply in the last five to ten years. Can those changes explain what's happening with these children? Are there changes taking place that their bodies are ringing the alarm bells on?

"As we got into this phase, we reached out to a whole different sector that hadn't really been working with food allergies before, and it's been really fun. Since then, we've been engaged with people like Bobby Kennedy, whose 12-year-old has a food allergy, and he's been involved in this space for 12 years because his son's food allergies were just so terrible. His son had issues with food allergies as a very young little baby.

Erin Brokovich"Erin Brokovich is another person I've been working with, and she's just such a great cheerleader to have in your corner. You couldn't wish for anyone better. Then I presented at a food industry conference in Chicago this past May, and Prince Charles' team was there. And all of these people are really focused on providing healthy food for our kids, and that's what we're doing with allergykids.com.

"We're trying to help give the parents the tools to feed their children the smartest foods they can feed them since their children have this autoimmune challenge with food allergies. And the reason that we look at it that way is because 70% of our immune system is actually found in our digestive tract. So you've got to think about how to take care of these children not only from the outside, but also from the inside out."

Genetically Modified Foods & Food Allergies

Genetically modified food, also known as GM food or genetically engineered food, entered the food supply in the 1990s. GM foods contain small pieces of foreign DNA (from other organisms and often from another species). This foreign DNA is engineered into the food in hopes of producing desirable traits like resistance to herbicides and pesticides, or resistance to specific pests.

Genetically Modified Foods & Food Allergies"Genetically modified food is new," explains O'Brien. "It's 10 years old, but it's already very pervasive. People were modifying foods by cross-breeding plants for hundreds of years, but in the last 10 years, they started genetically modifying foods to make their own insecticides, basically. People 10 years ago got really worried about the spraying of the plants, so they decided that if they could engineer the insecticide into the plant itself, they could reduce the spraying, which made sense... Except the problem is that proteins and allergens are introduced when you genetically modify a plant, and no human trials were ever done.

"As these novel allergens and novel proteins were introduced with no human trials done, government agencies around the world in other developed countries simply labeled these ingredients so that a mom could decide if she wanted to expose her child to these new proteins and allergens, which is especially helpful if you have a family with a predisposition to allergies. In the U.S., there was no labeling.

"So what we're finding is that there's a dramatic correlation between the introduction of genetically engineered soy, which was introduced in 1996, and within that first year, there was a 50% increase seen in soy allergies. And within the first five years of the introduction of genetically engineered soy, there was a doubling of peanut allergy.

"Studies are showing now that there are allergens in this genetically engineered soy, and they are 41% similar to peanut allergen. Consider how prevalent soy is and how it's used in processed foods; it's pervasive. And so, to have suddenly introduced an allergen like that into the food supply in the last 10 years, and then to also see this correlation in the number of children with food allergies, I think it's something that merits additional studies.

Peanut Allergy"Out of the U.K., there are studies that show that soy formula is linked as a factor in peanut allergy. Because soy suddenly has these hidden allergens in it, it makes sense that avoiding that sort of formula may prevent a risk.

"In Sweden and France, parents of children under the age of three are advised that they should consider avoiding soy. The food agencies in Europe advise parents that if they reduce soy exposure for children under the age of three, it may help prevent autoimmune challenges like food allergies.

"Other studies out of Europe suggest that if expectant mothers reduce their exposure to pesticides (that are either sprayed onto foods are genetically engineered into them), there is a reduction in the number of children with gestational diabetes and autism - so it's really just about getting back to clean foods.

"One other thing we're looking at is how a milk protein is actually used as a stabilizer in some processed foods. You can't point to any one obvious factor, but as you start to consider all of these factors together and the impact they would have on a young child under the age of three, their systems are actually being hit by a lot of new things that just haven't been tested before on humans."

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Eat Processed Foods

GM foods like soy and corn are found in many processed foods. Experts estimate that 60-70% of processed foods contain GM ingredients.

Avoid Processed Food"There are a lot of hidden allergens in processed foods," says O'Brien, "and so reducing a child's exposure to processed foods goes a long way to help strengthen his or her immune system.

"There's a whole host of reasons for parents to avoid giving their children processed foods - not just because of food allergies. Processed foods have been linked to diabetes and obesity, but the fact that they contain hidden allergens is something that every mom should consider.

"I'm a mother of four, I'm busy, I have a tight budget, and I understand how quick and easy it is to grab the processed food. We really had to re-train our whole house. Now snacks have to consist of things you can pronounce - because you can't pronounce the ingredients on the labels of a lot of processed foods. The first step is to get back to the foods you can pronounce, like an apple, or a banana, or a piece of toast, or a bagel. If you can move away from processed foods and get back to foods that you can pronounce - foods with ingredients that your grandmother could pronounce - it's a great step for the health of your children."

Back to School Advice for Allergy Parents

Back to School Advice for Allergy ParentsO'Brien offers the following back-to-school advice for parents of children with food allergies: "The problem is becoming so prevalent that there is a strength in numbers that can help. I always say to the moms, 'You're not alone.' Find the other parents of children with food allergies, and get together and present a plan for your school. In a lot of the schools, what they're doing is having all the allergy kids in school wear a bright green wristband with the universal symbol, and the kids love them. It's not something they hate like a scarlet letter.

"We also have school documents on allergykids.com that parents can download for free, and they're just simple ways to help educate your school, teachers, and other classroom parents. It's a non-threatening, friendly way to help parents take care of these kids. Again, we're just trying to give parents the tools to help care for these children."

Teenagers - High Risk for Anaphylaxis

O'Brien's website shares the stories of Emily and Sabrina, two 13-year-old girls who died of anaphylaxis because of their food allergies.

Teenagers at High Risk for Anaphylaxis"Studies have shown that teenagers are at higher risk," says O'Brien. "When you're a teenager, you're going through your rebellious years, you don't want to do what your parents are telling you, you're kind of looking for ways to show your individuality, and unfortunately, sometimes when that occurs, a lot of the children don't carry their Epi-pens. Even when you have a well-behaved teen, what happens (and what happened in Emily's case), is that the family get comfortable with the food allergy, thinking that they've got it under control.

"What we're finding is whether it's a genetic change in the child, or whether it's allergens added to the food supply, you just never know, and so you have to be prepared all the time.

"In both cases, the girls didn't have their Epi-pens with them.

"Either the family gets comfortable with the food allergy, or the teenager doesn't want to come across as different, and the problem never goes away. You always have to be prepared and vigilant.

"There is hope," stresses O'Brien. "There are so many things we can do as parents to take control. A few changes in your child's diet may help prevent the food allergy from getting worse as your child gets older. It's inspiring to know that we have options available."

Also see: Food Allergy / Anaphylaxis Solution Guide.

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Allergy Consumer Report.

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