Over the holidays, I read a book that really freaked me out. It’s called The Unhealthy Truth, and I imagine more than a few of my readers and friends have heard of it or even read it. It was written by a woman who lives in Boulder and who, after one of her children was diagnosed with a life-threatening food allergy, used the research skills she had acquired as a Wall Street food-industry analyst to unearth some scary and some downright disgusting facts about the food we eat in America. The author, Robyn O’Brien, tells the story of her discoveries and her personal conversion from a mom who feeds her kids blue yogurt and frozen dinosaur-shaped nuggets to a recognized expert and crusader on behalf of clean food. Along the way, O’Brien reveals some shocking things about genetically modified (GM) foods, bovine growth hormone, artificial ingredients and chemicals — and the icky connections among some highly respected doctors, certain political figures, and the corporations who sell these things to us. It reads a bit like a conspiracy theory.
I didn’t always buy O’Brien’s “I was just a clueless mom” line and find it difficult to imagine that a woman living in Boulder, Colorado (where “vegan & raw” is a fairly typical diet) could have still been feeding her kids neon orange boxed mac and cheese in 2006. I’m also always a little dubious of corporate-conspiracy theories (but I must admit the Monsanto thing is hard to digest — and even harder to ignore). Still, The Unhealthy Truth was eye opening and served as a good reinforcement of my efforts to feed my family food that’s as clean and wholesome as it is delicious. If you’re still fishing around for some new year’s resolutions, I recommend picking up a copy of O’Brien’s book. There’s plenty in there to resolve to change — in your diet and the food system as a whole. Just be prepared, because, as I mentioned in an earlier post (“The Matrix”), you can’t unlearn this stuff. You’ll never look at a box of corn flakes (they contain GM corn) or beloved orange Goldfish (artificial coloring) again.
Since you’re reading this, you’re probably already way ahead of where O’Brien was in 2006 in terms of food knowledge. Like me, you probably don’t need to be told to avoid milk containing the rBST bovine growth hormone (which apparently leads to infections that cause the cows to drip pus into their milk) or food containing artificial ingredients (i.e. sweeteners that are known to have neurological side effects) with names you can’t pronounce. And (I hope!) you don’t feed your kids neon orange mac and cheese — hello, Annie’s? But I did learn a lot from this book. I wasn’t aware of the connection between GM soy and peanut allergies, for instance, or that many ingredients that are approved by the FDA are actually banned in most other countries (and not just a few smallish places like Denmark). I am now looking for the “rBST-free” label on my sour cream and yogurt, too.
Much of O’Brien’s advice in the “This is a Carrot” chapter is pretty basic and I imagine would be easy to adopt (i.e. “Instead of Tang, Choose Orange Juice”!!). O’Brien invokes what she calls the “80-20” rule, meaning her family eats non-processed, additive-free food 80% of the time, so they can “get a free pass” the other 20%. This (clean eating) is one place I’d actually push for less moderation (While I”m sure Original Miracle Whip is less evil than Fat Free Miracle Whip, I think we can do even better.), but I get her point. I interpret it to mean something like this: Cleaning up our diet is an ongoing project and a challenging resolution, but it’s doable if you take the (baby) steps you and your family can live with. While I was dutifully shredding fresh mozzarella tonight to avoid getting any powdered cellulose (added to pre-shredded cheeses) on our homemade pizzas, I had a vision of our family being 100% clean eaters. And it was a very tiring vision. So I’m with Robyn on this one; do your best, read and learn what you can, and shoot for 80%.