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Nutrition, education and food policy affect all of our children. Can we change them for the better?
In 2009, the largest recall of peanut products, supplied by Peanut Corporation of America, was prompted by an outbreak of salmonella that killed eight and sickened more than 500 people, mostly children. More than 125 products were pulled off the shelves, many of which were being sold to nursing homes, schools and other institutions. The Washington Post reported that the last FDA inspection of the plant had been in 2001.
In January of the same year, a study published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that nearly one-third of 55 name-brand foods contained mercury in the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used as a sugar substitute—including Hershey’s syrup, Heinz ketchup and more. Mercury is toxic in all forms; given how much HFCS is consumed by children, it could be a source of mercury never before considered.
As a chiropractor with special focus on children and their neurological function, I see numerous children with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders). When I come across these kinds of headlines, I am strengthened in my resolve to encourage parents and communities to take a proactive role in shaping the future of food policy in this country.
[Dreamstime.com :: APPLE-PICKING CHILD © Leahkat ] Growing up, how many of us knew a child with an ASD, ADD or ADHD? Yet today, we all more than likely know a family, if not our own, who has been touched by one of these conditions. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study that reveals that 1 in 10 children suffer from ADHD, up 22 percent from four years ago. According to the survey, about 5.4 million children in the United States have ADHD, and 2.7 million of them take medication for the condition. Additionally, a 2006 study showed that 1 in 110 children is diagnosed with an ASD, up from 1 in 150 in 2002 and up from 1 to 2 in 10,000 in 1980. While there are certainly genetic components involved, environmental factors play a significant role. What aspect of that role does our food supply play, and how can we ensure our children receive the optimal nutritional support for their developing bodies and brains?
The Dangers of HFCS
If we begin by examining HFCS, for example, we can begin to understand the relationship between huge agribusiness, government policy and health issues. HFCS was invented in the 1970s when scientists discovered a way to convert corn glucose into fructose, causing it to become substantially sweeter. Because of government subsidies for corn production and tariffs on imported sugar, it became an incredibly cheap sweetener to use. Consequently, some form of a corn product is in almost all processed foods. In addition, HFCS is often made from genetically modified corn because of the huge cash incentives offered to farmers who grow it.
There are three elements to discuss where health issues are concerned: toxic mercury, the dangers of GMOs and the increased levels of obesity in our children. There is no disagreement about the effects of mercury toxicity in children. It is linked to developmental disorders, including autism, Asperger’s, ADD and PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder). Symptoms include loss of speech, delayed speech, decreased eye contact, withdrawal, aggressive behaviors, night terrors, sleep disturbances, repeating actions over and over, and chronic infections, among others.
Because much of the corn used for HFCS is genetically modified, other health hazards are possible. In a study conducted and reluctantly released by Monsanto, three strains of its GMO corn were connected to liver and kidney damage in rats. GMOs are created to resist pests and herbicides, so massive amounts of herbicides and pesticides are sprayed on crops. In addition to the health threats, seed migration poses a grave risk to the livelihood of organic farmers by contaminating their crops.
A study published in the June 2010 issue of Pediatrics reveals that around 94 percent of the 1,100 children tested had residue of organophosphate compounds in their urine…most likely from eating foods that had a high pesticide residue, such as favorite fruits and vegetables. In a representative sample of U.S. children, those with higher levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites were more likely to have ADHD than children with lower levels. The study suggests that exposure to organophosphate compounds in developing children might have effects on neural systems, and could contribute to behaviors such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Lastly, intake of HFCS has increased from .6 pounds per person per year in the 1970s to 73.5 pounds per person in 2007—a 12,250 percent increase in consumption over just a few decades. It is estimated that corn syrup accounts for 1 in 10 calories that the average American eats. The typical diet in the U.S. consists of highly processed foods, laced with added fats and sugars. It is no wonder, then, that in the last 30 years, according to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than tripled—and with it a rise in cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, poor self esteem, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes and a propensity for obesity as an adult.
Creating an Action Plan
This information is not intended to inspire fear but to create an awareness of the extent to which large corporations have commandeered our food supply. Beyond that, how can we ensure that our own families are adequately nourished, and how can we shape policy that benefits society as a whole?
A natural and immediate first step is to breastfeed your baby for as long as possible. An analysis of studies found that for every month a baby is breastfed, the risk of being overweight in childhood is reduced by 4 percent. Babies who were breastfed for nine months had a 31 percent reduction in risk. Additionally, breast milk contains nutrients and fats essential for brain and nervous system development. Breastfeeding also plays an important role in a baby’s immune system long past lactation, and can decrease the instances of intestinal infections and allergies.
Choose organic foods whenever possible. Incorporate omega-3 rich foods into your child’s diet. Studies have shown that children with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids demonstrate more behavioral, sleep and learning problems compared to children with higher levels. Fish (such as salmon) and flaxseed are excellent omega-3 sources that improve the functioning of the brain and enhance attention and visual acuity.
Eat locally. Support local farmers and farmer’s markets, and explore getting a share in a local CSA (community supported agriculture), a way to buy local seasonal food directly from the farmer. If you can afford it, offer to buy a share in a CSA for a family in your community who is unable to afford one.
Read labels. Avoid foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce, as they are highly processed and have little nutritive value. Many children on the spectrum have sensitivities to wheat, dairy and other foods that can cause a host of gastrointestinal and behavioral issues. Testing for these is now widely available, as are guides for gluten-free, casein-free diets. It is important, though, not to substitute large quantities of sugar for gluten in these products.
Avoid meats that are produced on factory farms. Aside from the horrific living conditions for the animals, the environmental toll is enormous. Seventy percent of antibiotics sold in the country are sold to farmers, without regulation. Three percent of pork samples contained MRSA, a deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kills more people in the U.S. than AIDS. Hormones are widely used to promote faster growth.
Be aware of what our livestock eats. Arsenic is often fed to chickens, and their manure is spread as a fertilizer on cropland. In Prairie Grove, a small town in Arkansas, arsenic traced back to chicken feed was found in the air filters of houses and schools. The incidence of cancer is alarmingly high there, with 20 pediatric cases reported in a town of about 1,000 people. Beef products are fed to chickens and the waste is then fed to cattle… and cattle that have been fed cattle have been linked to mad cow disease. Pig manure is liquefied, releasing huge amounts of ammonia and methane. It is kept in pits and then sprayed onto fields, running off into creeks, threatening the water supply and marine life.
One of the challenges to changing food policy is the lack of access to healthy food choices in low-income neighborhoods. Big agribusiness targets underserved communities by supplying the fast-food chains that thrive in economically depressed areas, where often it is impossible to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Because of these food deserts, families are forced to choose highly processed, nutritionally bereft foods. Obesity rates and type 2 diabetes are more common in impoverished areas. This takes its toll on all of society. Ultimately, children are unable to live up to their potential. Everyone loses.
[© Photobunnyuk / Dreamstime.com] Good News on the Horizon
Thankfully, some places are beginning to address these issues. In Nashville, Tennessee, the Veggie Project, an inspirational component of the Children’s Health Improvement and Prevention Project, was created to decrease childhood obesity and curb the effects of food deserts. The project increases access to fresh produce while strengthening healthier lifestyles and personal healthy decision-making.
In 2010, Kansas State University hosted Rural Grocery Summit II: Saving Our Critical Infrastructure. This conference brought together nearly 200 rural store owners, funders, food wholesalers, academics and citizen leaders to counter the loss of local, independently owned grocery stores.
And Detroit, Michigan, has become a beacon for the rising urban gardening movement. The Greening of Detroit, a collaborative formed in 2003, grows 41 different fruits and vegetables. The yield is sold at farsmers’ markets and to restaurants and food banks, but most ends up on family tables.
There are legislative initiatives as well. In south Los Angeles, a committee backed a one-year moratorium on new fast-food chains while offering economic incentives to attract full-service grocery stores and restaurants with table service. California and New York City have banned the use of trans fats in restaurant foods. In San Francisco, the city’s board of supervisors voted to forbid restaurants from giving away toys with meals that have high levels of calories, sugar and fat.
However, legislating regulation can be tricky. The farm bill affords greater regulations for big agribusiness, but may have consequences for the small sustainable farmer as well. Throughout the country, government raids on small raw food farms and private food supply clubs are on the rise. These raids threaten to discourage consumers from purchasing directly from small local farms that provide healthy, nutrient-rich foods by going after the sources. Read the fine print on legislation that is introduced and contact your representatives with your concerns.
Sadly, we cannot count on our regulatory agencies and our elected officials to safeguard our food. At a time when the revolving door between lobbyists, corporations and governmental agencies is at an all-time high, it is important to question authority.
Ultimately, food is life. Selecting, preparing and consuming food takes up a great deal of our time. For many mothers it can be overwhelming. As much as possible, within our busy schedules, we can enhance our experience by celebrating each aspect of our relationship to food. The colors, texture and variety are unlimited in our culture. Engaging our children in the selection process can be fun and empowering. Purchasing a share in a CSA allows us to develop a relationship with the farmer who grows our food and learn more about how food is grown. Together we can find ways to reclaim our food supply and create a healthier, brighter world.
author: Keri Chiappino, DC, DACNB
01 September 2012