Let’s Ask Marion: Are Processed Foods Poisoning Us?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: The New York Times ran an article last week about food allergies which focused on the efforts of activist Robin O'Brien, "food's Erin Brockovich," to draw a link between the chemicals, hormones, and genetically modified ingredients routinely used in processed foods and the rise of food allergies, autism, and other illnesses.

O'Brien's theory resonates with a lot of people, but it doesn't appear to be backed up by any solid science, according to the Times. I've heard about studies conducted in Britain, though, which found that children exposed to various food additives exhibited a variety of troubling symptoms that disappeared when those ingredients were eliminated from their diets.

You've been warning us about the nutritional deficiencies of processed foods for ages, but what do you say to wary parents like O'Brien who fear that we're literally poisoning ourselves and our kids with these artificial, additive-filled foods?

Dr. Nestle: Eeks! Food allergies! I can't think of anything scarier than a kid with a food allergy. Why? Because food allergies are really, really hard to diagnose, the most common allergens seem to be in all kinds of processed
foods, and making a feeding mistake can kill your kid. These are pretty high stakes for something we know so little about.

The first challenge is to figure out what's causing the reaction. If you aren't dealing with something obvious--the kid's face swells up every time she's given a mango--you are in testing hell. You can try skin and immune tests, but these often don't work. Then, you are faced with elimination diets and food challenges (this last under a doctor's supervision). If you and your doctor are lucky, you will figure out what's causing the problem. Now all you have to do is make sure your kid doesn't eat that food. Ever (or hope she grows out of it). No wonder parents of allergic kids are in despair, and no
wonder Robin O'Brien's work gets attention. She offers hope and action.

As for the science: it has huge gaps. Predictability, unfortunately, is one of them. But one thing is known for sure: true food allergies are immune reactions to proteins, and most are to proteins from commonly eaten foods:
milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. That's why food labels now highlight them on package ingredient lists.

Chemical sensitivities are another matter entirely as they do not involve the immune system, and studies of them are difficult to design carefully and to conduct. At the moment, scientists are in the dark about what causes allergies and whether or why they seem to be increasing. Without this knowledge, it's hard to know what to do to prevent them. And
there is only one treatment: avoidance.

If you think your child has a food allergy or intolerance, try to find a competent pediatric allergy specialist and keep your fingers crossed that the problem can be identified. Otherwise, feeding a relatively simple diet may help. And if this means avoiding junk foods, that sounds just fine to me.

Let me add just a word about the politics. This is one area that screams for more research. The FDA used to have terrific researchers working on identifying sequences of amino acids in food proteins that could cause allergic reactions. But funding got tight and the FDA assigned those scientists to some other project. I'm hoping that Robin's work will encourage NIH to make food allergy research a higher priority. It needs it.