Robyn O'Brien's journey from stay-at-home Boulder mom feeding her kids blue yogurt and fluorescent-orange cheese to prominent health activist began with an egg.
One Sunday in 2006 her daughter finished breakfast — scrambled eggs, that blue yogurt, Eggo waffles — and her face began to puff up. The family took off for the hospital.
She was having an allergic reaction to the eggs. The doctor began rattling off statistics about food allergies, and O'Brien thought: Since when did so many foods become so problematic, for so many people?
The former financial analyst for the food industry, and mother of four, began digging, and found that between 1997 and 2002, the incidence of peanut allergies doubled. She learned that there had been a 265 percent increase in food-allergy-related visits to emergency rooms. She discovered quite a bit more, which led her to a new career.
Now, she runs the Allergy Kids Foundation, an increasingly influential nonprofit organization that she started. The nonprofit revolves around what has become her mission: to educate people about the chemicals and additives in our food supply. She writes about these topics, in a book — "The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It" — and articles, including a column in Prevention magazine. She travels the country giving speeches and lectures — including two TED lectures, in Austin, Texas,. and Denver — and she routinely appears on national television.
We sat down with O'Brien in a Boulder coffee shop, where she drank black coffee and talked about food, chemicals, music and teachers.
O'Brien, 41, grew up in Houston singing in choral groups, and in college she belted out songs in a band. The oldest of four children, she likes how music brings disparate parts together into something harmonious, a lesson that she thinks is important for more than just playing tunes. And no place, she said, celebrates music quite like Red Rocks. Everything about the amphitheater stirs O'Brien's spirit. She is not alone. Red Rocks — built in 1941, at an elevation of 6,450 feet and seating 9,450 — has been a Colorado treasure from the day it opened, bringing some of the finest musicians to the state.
Q: A lot of people get bummed about the chemicals in our food (those lists of puzzling chemical names on the back of toaster treat boxes), but they don't do anything about it. Why did you become so engaged?
A: I had this moment where I was standing in the kitchen, looking in the cupboards at the boxes of fluorescent macaroni and cheese and realizing that chemicals, ones that we didn't know much about, were in everything I was feeding my family. I looked out at my kids playing in the backyard and thought I can't do much, but I can do one thing. I can control what my family eats. It all grew out of that moment.
Q: Have you run up against many industry groups?
A: I reached out to a large allergy organization. I was trying to raise money for them, and they were acting like they were allergic to me. I pulled their financials and learned they were funded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. And there was pushback from industry in general, early on. But I do not spend a lot of time pointing fingers and looking backwards and blaming. I'm very solution-oriented. I have sat down with executives from the world's largest food companies and these guys have told me they wouldn't choose the food system we have today.
Q: You believe many chemicals are dangerous to our health, that in many cases, it's not the foods to which we are allergic, but the chemicals. Is there proof?
A: We don't have enough studies. But there is enough correlation to at least call for labeling. There is a two-year study that just came out of France, it showed organ damage, tumors, premature death. It was a dramatic study. We need more. It is like what happened with tobacco companies. Grandparents will say they remember when there were ads for cigarettes in doctors' offices. It's not the first time we have been down a road like this.
Q: Why is labeling important?
A: For thousands of years, all food was organic. We didn't call it organic, we called it food. In Europe, if it is labeled it is not organic. Only in the United States does the burden fall on the organic industry, rather than the industry introducing the new technology.
Q: Changing big agriculture and the processed-food industry seems like a daunting task. Is there hope?
A: You see it with farmers markets. With salad bars in school cafeterias. You can say this is a mess we inherited, but look at all of this fun stuff going on. There is so much business opportunity. Allergen-free product lines, gluten-free product lines, organic product lines. This isn't about anybody telling anybody what to eat. Diet is like religion; it is not one size fits all.
Q: Has your family's relationship to food changed? How?
A: I wanted to reduce my family's exposure to additives. To things made in laboratories. Would my grandmother have had a jar of yellow #5 dye to make noodles? No. High-fructose corn syrup? No. So it was eat less fake food and eat more real foods. So instead of snack packs, we went to an orange. Instead of the bar loaded with ingredients my grandmother couldn't recognize or pronounce, we went to a banana. Pick one ingredient a month to drop out. That's a good approach. Food is more than food. It's our family, our heritage, our culture, our economy. If we introduce this change we have to do it at a pace that is acceptable.
Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: We don't restore the health of our country. This march of disease we are seeing becomes too much for us to bear as an economy, as a country.
Q: What is your favorite way to spend time?
A: Making the kitchen messy with the kids.
Q: Who is your favorite character in fiction?
A: It's really the book "The Alchemist," by Paulo Coelho. That book helped me with that pivot from fear to love. I think sometimes our greatest obstacle is ourself, the stories we tell ourselves. Why would I do this? Who would listen to me? I went through all of that. That is a book that is on my bedside table.
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
A: The capacity to love. It can make the impossible, possible. Where we find our strength and courage to make the world better.
Q: When are you at your happiest?
A: When I am blanketed in music, surrounded by people that I love and care about. That can be listening to a concert at Red Rocks or listening to bands on Pearl Street with the kids, dancing around. I think music is such a celebration, such an expression of life.
Q: What is your most obvious characteristic?
Q: What do you most deplore in yourself?
A: It is a blessing and a curse. My sensitivity. It helps me be mindful of decisions, of the impact they can have, but I can overanalyze things. It takes you to both ends of the spectrum.
Q: What is the most overrated virtue?
A: Humility. There isn't a person I have met who doesn't have some awesome attribute, but we tend to downplay them, cloak them, harness them. But you should celebrate it, sing it out there.
Q: What is your phrase?
A: Create the solution.
Q: If you could come back as an object, what would it be?
A: A guitar. I think music is a universal language. It makes you feel good. It comforts you, inspires you.
Q: What has been the greatest influence on you?
A: It is this fabric of the teachers I have had over the years. There are people in our lives who touch us, who help us become better versions of ourselves, and it's not until we are older that we can look back and see it. The older I get, I see it more quickly when it happens.
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, djbrown@ denverpost.com or twitter.com/douglasjbrown