When Robyn O'Brien served her children scrambled eggs one day for breakfast early in 2006, the mother of four had no clue it would change her life drastically and forever.
"I had made scrambled eggs and put them in front of all four kids and decided to put them in front of the baby," the 36-year-old said. "I put them on her highchair and she didn't want them, fussed and pushed them away. And I didn't think anything of it."
But 9-month-old Tory's aversion to the breakfast staple had little to do with taste, as O'Brien soon found out.
"I put her down for a nap. A few minutes later and there was some mother instinct in me because I went in to check on her for some reason, which I rarely do, and her face was swollen shut," O'Brien said.
A life-threatening reaction to eggs caused grotesque swelling of the infant's face and instantly shook O'Brien to her core. She said her daughter's severe response prompted her to take a closer look at what she was feeding all of her children and to educate herself on food allergies.
"I did not know what was happening. I was so unfamiliar with food allergy and what a reaction looked like," said O'Brien, who lives in Colorado. "That's really when my education began."
Learning About Additives
What O'Brien soon learned was that artificial dyes are used in sugary cereals, candies, sodas and other goodies marketed toward children. Sometimes artificial dyes are even used to simulate the colors of fruits and vegetables.
What further disturbed O'Brien was the fact that U.S. consumers regularly ingest the additives in their food, but they have been removed from the same foods in some other countries.
In fact, Mars Inc. responded to pressure from the British government last year by removing artificial colors from its well-known Starburst and Skittles candies sold in the United Kingdom, after a British study bolstered a hypothesis that such additives increase hyperactivity in children.
Food industry giant Kraft Foods Inc. also did the same thing in early 2007 with its British version of Lunchables.
Whereas British consumers have revolted against artificial food dyes in the U.K., Americans haven't been as vocal as their counterparts. That is something O'Brien hopes to change.
"My goal is simply to have the same value placed on the lives of the American children," O'Brien said.
Mom on a Mission
O'Brien even created a Web site, which she launched on Mother's Day 2006, to serve as a parental resource and forum on children's food allergies.
The site is specific with its concerns.
"At AllergyKids, our concern is that industry funding ties between the agri-chemical companies and pediatric allergists who have served on the FDA 'generally recognized as safe' panels and testified to the safety of MSG, aspartame, glutamate and genetically engineered proteins, may prevent full disclosure of leading global research highlighting a ban of these ingredients in Europe, Australia, the UK and other developed countries in an effort to protect children," the site says.
O'Brien even created a symbol — a green stop sign with an exclamation point in the center — to identify a child with food allergies. It can be put on lunch bags, wristbands and even shoes.
"My goal now is to say, 'OK, this is what's happening. Let's inspire other mothers to take control so that our children can benefit like the children around the world,'" O'Brien said.
In her own life, O'Brien has gotten strict about what she feeds her children and encourages others to do what she has done: Throw out as much non-organic processed food as they can afford to. Also, avoid anything that's genetically modified, artificially created or raised with hormones and don't eat food with ingredients you are unable to pronounce.
"I thought, 'Well, I want to cook like the moms in Europe and avoid these chemical additives and see if that makes a difference in my children's health and behavior.' And so we did," O'Brien said. "We moved from the tubes of blue yogurt to regular yogurt and we started mixing honey into it. "
Not everyone in her family was happy about the changes.
"I encountered major resistance from my boys," O'Brien said. "They loved that blue yogurt and it was easy and it was convenient, but to see the dramatic improvement in my boys — especially as we cleaned out their diets — it was amazing. It was incredibly inspiring. They slept better; they were able to concentrate in school. Their behavior improved."
The Allergies-Additives Connection
It remains unclear whether the chemicals pose any real health hazards to consumers, though two recent British studies found that certain food dyes, as well as the common preservative sodium benzoate, may have an adverse effect on some children's behavior. Researchers said the increase in ADHD diagnoses could be partly to blame on the preservative.
"It can affect their focus, their concentration. They become more easily distractible, become more impulsive. I think we're looking at a whole population of kids with skewed immune systems," said Dr. Kenneth Bock, who wrote a book that supports the theory that food additives could lead to hyperactivity in children.
But some, like child behavioral expert Dr. Andrew Adesman of Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y., don't buy into the claim.
"I think perhaps we're better off eating less artificial colorings on the one hand. On the other hand I think it's irresponsible to suggest this is a major cause for hyperactivity," Adesman said. "I think the data don't support [that] this is causing most problems for most children."