Is the food on our plates making us sick?
Yes, argues a new book released this week. Part memoir, part would-be expose, "The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick – and What We Can Do About It" reveals author Robyn O'Brien's journey from regular old mom to "allergy detective" and children's health crusader.
After her youngest child suffered a severe reaction to eggs, the mother of four and MBA launched a campaign to uncover what she believes are "hidden toxins" in our food supply.
Based on her research and consultation with pediatricians and allergists, O'Brien concludes that these toxins "can be blamed for the alarming recent increases in allergies, ADHD, cancer, and asthma in our children."
"Since when did a PB&J and a carton of milk become such a loaded weapon on a lunchroom table?" she remarked to ABCNews.com.
But despite back-of-the-book endorsements from such luminaries as Oprah contributor Dr. Mehmet Oz, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and well-known activist Erin Brokovich, some health experts caution that the book seems to rely on studies that are not entirely credible and lets philosophy trump hard science.
Kid's Food Allergies Reportedly On the Rise
One thing is sure, however. Kids' allergies are on the rise.
Between 1997 and 2007, the number of young people with a food allergy increased 18 percent, according to an October 2008 U.S. Centers for Disease Control report.
In 2007, about 3 million U.S. children and teenagers were reported to have a food allergy in the previous 12 months. In 1997, that figure was just over 2.3 million.
Allergists are split over the reasons why this number appears to have soared. Some say it's because awareness is up, others suggest it's because we live in a more antiseptic environment that leaves us more susceptible to allergic reactions.
But O'Brien is convinced our genetically engineered and chemically enhanced food supply is to blame. And, she maintains that the allergy epidemic is just the "tip of the iceberg." Asthma, autism, cancers and behavioral problems can all trace their roots back to the food we eat, she says.
Among the foods O'Brien suggests we avoid:
* Diet colas and sodas that contain aspartame.
* Bright orange macaroni and cheese mixes with artificial coloring.
* Low-fat ice cream because the additives in it are worse than the ingredients in full-fat ice cream.
* Milk and dairy products that contain rBGH (look for products with labels that say they are free of this).
* Strawberry ice cream and blue yogurt that contain artificial dyes.
* Flavored oatmeal packets with artificial flavor.
* Fruit juices with high-fructose corn syrup and/or coloring.
U.S. and Other Industrialized Countries Have Different Standards
"The most important thing is to step back and realize that a lot of these ingredients have been added to the U.S. food supply in the last 10, 15 years [but] not in foods around the world," she said. "Why have developed countries around the world, removed, banned or labeled these ingredients? Because they've never been proven safe. We have different standards in the U.S."
The recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) that is injected into cows and used to increase milk production is linked to breast, prostate and colon cancers, she said. Although it is banned in many industrialized nations, the Food and Drug Administration says it is safe.
Aspartame, used to sweeten all kinds of foods and drinks from Diet Coke to yogurt and ice cream, is another "toxin" targeted by O'Brien. Citing a range of studies, she connects the sweetener to brain tumors, lymphomas, leukemia and other kinds of cancers.
O'Brien: Kids' Health and Behavior Improved With Less 'Toxic' Food
Colored food also gets a good deal of attention in her book. Fluorescent orange macaroni and cheese, blue yogurt and strawberry ice cream include artificial colorings and sodium benzoate that, she says, have been shown to make kids more hyperactive and less attentive.
After eliminating these foods from her kids' diets and substituting products without these additives and hormones, she said she's seen a dramatic change in their behavior and health.
"One of my kiddos came up and he just said, "Mommy my stomach always used to hurt and it doesn't hurt anymore," she told ABC News. In her book she also says that her kids are better behaved and "generally get along better, are more cheerful, more energetic and better able to control their impulses."
But health experts are divided over O'Brien's thesis.
"I can certainly understand a parent's concern. But we also in this country have choices," said Dr. Keith Ayoob, a practicing pediatric nutritionist and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Philosophy Vs. Science in Food Choices
"At this point, I'm much more concerned that before we even address that issue that kids and families eat the types of foods that they need because too many people aren't getting enough healthy food," he added.
As for rGBH, he said, "there is absolutely zero evidence that there's any difference between milk from cows with RBGH and milk from cows [without it]."
"I think what this gets down to is philosophy and if a person has a philosophy about food, I'm okay with that as long as it doesn't hurt anybody. But when you start to make recommendations to people, I'm going to talk about science not philosophy," he added.
When asked about the safety of aspartame, Ayoob said, "I really, really wish we could put this to rest."
Not that he recommends that people drink diet sodas or foods with the sweetener, but he said hundreds of studies around the world have proven the safety of aspartame.
Thomas Badger, director of the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center and professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, raised similar questions.
How Much Testing Is Enough?
He also said he had not encountered any good evidence linking aspartame to cancer. And though he said rBGH could get into the food supply, it's been studied extensively and the quantities are negligible.
Genetically modified foods have been shown to be equally innocuous, he said.
"There should be no concern about that. The facts are that the modifications that would take place are not of the type that the food supply is going to get contaminated," Badger said. "There is no consequence to health."
While every additive can't be studied in depth, he said that they are regulated by the government and, from his observation, are handled appropriately and responsibly by companies careful to avoid lawsuits.
Still, not all agree the enough studies are conducted on the food that ends up in our kitchens and on our tables.
"Overall, in the U.S. we don't have, in most cases, adequate testing before we put new chemicals or say genetically engineered crops out there. We don't follow the precautionary principle," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the non-profit Center for Food Safety.
Difficult to Connect the Dots Between Food Safety and Health
If evidence simply suggests that something could be harmful, it's ignored, he said, adding that only air-tight cases – and these are extremely hard to come by – are enough to ban products.
For example, while he acknowledges that there isn't definitive science saying genetically modified crops are harmful, he still maintains that adequate studies have not been conducted.
Like O'Brien, his center also argues that rBGH should be taken out of milk as it isn't well-tested. It also has been working on campaigns to get it on more labels.
On some issues, O'Brien has other allies too.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that aspartame should be avoided. Relying on some of the same studies as O'Brien, it says that it might cause cancer or neurological problems such as dizziness or hallucinations.
A spokesman for the CSPI also said that tartrazine and other food dyes exacerbate behavior problems in children.
Docs: Stick to the Basics and Eat a Balanced Meal
But the Center for Food Safety's Freese emphasized that it's difficult to connect the dots between health problems and food safety, as so many factors need to be considered.
"A lot of the problems we face are longer term or chronic and we eat so many different types of food," he said. "It can be difficult to trace back health problems and zero in … and find the probable cause. "
In the meantime, doctors encourage families to stick to what science has proven.
Dr. Ayoob said eating more fruits and vegetable, eating more low-fat dairy, exercising and dining as a family would probably do more to benefit overall health and nutrition.
"Let's get off that and focus on getting people to eat a more healthy and balanced diet rather than distract ourselves," he said.