Robyn O’Brien, a prominent voice in the health food movement, breaks down what it takes to afford to eat healthy meals without breaking the bank.
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Robyn O’Brien received international acclaim after her viral TEDx talk “The Unhealthy Truth” about processed food, the dangers it presents to our health and children and what we can do to make our diets better for our bodies and minds. Since then, O’Brien has been a health advocate, inspiring change at the national level. In this episode, she talks about the most important ways we can improve our health, how to do it affordably and efficiently and what to do when you need to pay for allergy medication that is becoming increasingly more expensive.
Jenny Hoff: Robyn, thank you so much for joining me today.
Robyn O’Brien: Oh, I’m so excited to talk with you this morning.
Hoff: So we’re going to focus our discussions today on affording health, and I know that’s a big topic to tackle but I definitely want to talk about making good food choices for our families without going into debt, affording allergy medication or epi-pens if our children do have food allergies, and how to develop a mindset so that we look at our health as an investment. But first, let’s talk a little bit about your back story. You had a TEDx talk that went totally viral several years ago. You wrote a book that was a best-selling book called “The Unhealthy Truth,” and you talk about the ingredients in our food that you believe are very, very detrimental to our children’s health. So, I want to first find out, how did you end up on that stage doing that TEDx talk? What sparked your interest and what was your background?
O’Brien: So, I grew up in Texas and was raised in a really conservative Republican family. I went to business school on a full scholarship. I was recruited by Exxon and Enron out of business school. I know myself really well and I tend to get bored really easily, and to me, what was fascinating was the equity world and investments and the thought of meeting with different management teams from different industries every single day. So that was the career that I pursued and I loved it. I’m still in touch with all those guys. I just heard from one of our crew of traders last night. I love the job, I love my team, I love every day coming in at 6:30 in the morning, going through financials, meeting with management teams, really learning industries and models. And I was the only woman on the team, and so the guys had me cover the food industry. I literally didn’t know how to cook. I had zero interest, and again, I just wanted these models, the financials, why they were making the decisions, how they were making the cost-benefit analysis, and at the time – being in the food industry – I saw how they removed real ingredients and replaced them with artificial ones in order to grab profitability and margins. I mean, that made sense then. It wasn’t until we fast-forwarded to a few years later and all of a sudden, I’m the mother of four and my youngest child has this life-threatening allergic reaction that I’m thinking, wait a minute, we’ve swapped out all the real stuff. We put in all the fake stuff. What’s the synergistic toxicity there? What happens when you combine all of these things together? And what impact is it having on our health, and in particular, what’s it doing to these kids? Because we were seeing these runaway rates for food allergies and sudden increases in the rates of autism, and I thought about when Rain Man came out when I was in high school, we had never seen autism, and so all of a sudden, it’s everywhere.
You’re all numb because it’s become so pervasive, and diabetes and obesity, so I was just thinking, what has changed in our food system? And as I began to ask that question, there were scientists that stepped in and said, “There’s a lot, Robyn,” and I was meeting with researchers and scientists, not only in the United States, but around the world. At the same time, there was this massive allergic reaction from what you would think would be these natural allies and what was a nonprofit base in DC, and so I pulled the financials for that nonprofit, I realized that they were funded by Kraft, the world’s biggest processed junk food company and then Monsanto. I had not at that point heard of this company Monsanto, so I started doing some digging and that was really when I first started learning about genetically engineered foods, and what was fascinating to me was that as an analyst, they had covered the food industry. We didn’t cover Monsanto. The chemical industry analysts covered this company because this company’s profitability is derived from their weed killer Roundup which is a chemical pesticide, and all of a sudden, what I thought I knew, and the industry that I thought I knew that I had covered with analysis and investment, all of a sudden, there was just this huge side to it that we really had not talked about. What was fascinating to me was that it wasn’t just me as an investment financial analyst; it was the entire country had not had this conversation around genetically engineered food.
So, I stepped back and I thought, okay, what’s the rest of the world doing? Because obviously, we export, and a lot of these food companies in the US get a lot of their revenue from what they’re able to sell overseas, and what was so fascinating to me was that our own American food companies formulate their products differently in other countries and so they don’t use things like these genetically engineered ingredients and they don’t use things like artificial growth hormones or artificial dyes. There’s this incredible double standard, and that to me, was offensive. And what’s been fascinating in the decades since is that any time I’m presenting information, it doesn’t matter if I’m presenting to farmers that grow genetically engineered crops or farmers that grow organic crops, or parents or teachers, or people on Wall Street. When you talk about the fact that our American food companies formulate their products differently for families in other countries with real ingredients they’ll receive and fake stuff here, that is just a universal offense. So, what started to happen was as I found the courage to speak on this which, again, I come out of a very conservative family and that did not come naturally. I’m very grateful; I had some incredible friends who were really brave, who have pioneered incredible campaigns against the tobacco industry and different things. They were in my corner and I could not have done the work in the early years without them, and they were really cheering me on and said, “Your ability to talk about this, because you come out of finance, is very different to anyone else who ever had and you have to talk about this.” So, they were always there by my side.
What was fascinating about that TED Talk was A, I 100 percent did not want to do it. I was terrified. At that point, I had never given a presentation with a PowerPoint presentation accompanying it, so that was all I knew, and I thought, do I have to have slides? And a friend of mine in the advertising industry said, “yes, you do.” So, I figured, okay, I got to put these slides together. And I really did not want to give that presentation but at the same time, the introduction had come through a friend that I grew up with that I played soccer with all through high school, and she’s a powerhouse, and she said, “You kind of have to do this.” I think it really speaks to, when we are campaigning change, that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need an incredible support system, so I’m very grateful to have that and to have met friends. I took the stage in Austin for the first TED Talk that I gave. I really just started praying a lot, let my heart speak because I had to sort of be a vehicle to deliver the message and it was fascinating. I don’t know really what I expected but I had this obligation to inform that audience, which that day was 600 people, of the double standard, of the changes that had been introduced into our food without our knowing. And then, to watch that thing go viral, to get translated into all of these different languages, nothing can really prepare you for that. But it also made me realize, that this truly is a global issue and what we’re seeing in the health of American children is worse than what other countries are seeing. And so, as they consider embracing the genetically engineered operating system, what they’re also going to have to consider is what else are they embracing? Are there other risks? Are there liabilities? And as we really look at that, the implications are so far-reaching. We spend more on health care and disease management in the United States than any other country; it’s $0.80 for every dollar. So, every single company in this country, every corporation, those health care costs are tearing at their profitability. It’s really hitting us on so many levels, and I was raised really patriotic; my parents fought in Vietnam. My dad was in the army, and I decided, how is this going to impact us 10, 20 years from now in the global marketplace? How does this impact our productivity? How does this impact our ability to educate kids in school if one in three kids has autism, allergies, ADHD, or asthma? So, it’s a very, very big conversation that our country has to have. I think what’s fascinating now is that parents, especially of this generation of children that has the title of Generation RX, they’re in on the game and they have become braver and more powerful and I think that’s what’s so inspiring. So, you often hear that every generation has its call to action and I truly believe that this is ours.
Hoff: It’s interesting, yes, if you look at the numbers. I lived in Europe for many years and you just didn’t see diabetes and other issues like that, and it’s not like they were eating super healthy food; They had sauces on their food and it was very calorie-rich food, but it was pure, right? It wasn’t filled with a lot of chemicals. And I know it’s a political issue and people have their thoughts on it either way, but I definitely want to talk about how we can get healthier food into our diets. As a parent, I can at least speak for myself when I say I worry about what goes into my child’s body and how it could affect his health, yet it is pretty expensive to eat an all whole food, organic diet – especially when your children have different ideas about what they’re willing to eat. So, what do you think is the most important change we can make in our grocery shopping habits to consume healthy, vitamin rich food without going broke?
O’Brien: So the first suggestion I make to anybody, and I had to do this myself, is to eat less fake food. That box of mac and cheese, you flip it over, it’s got, I don’t know, 20, 30, 40 ingredients in it, and I thought about my grandmother who’s 105 in Louisiana, and she would have just boiled the noodles, maybe grated some cheese on it, or maybe put some butter in it or maybe some olive oil. I think we got very complex in the formulation of processed food when real food is actually very simple. And I think for some reason, we divorced ourselves from that. We thought that we needed this crutch, that processed food somehow make our lives faster and quicker and easier and it’s a boomerang because it’s not, because we’re back and forth to the pediatrician’s office all the time, we’re back and forth to the treatment centers all the time.
It hasn’t gotten faster, easier, or cheaper. It has the exact opposite effect, and so for us, it’s really the shift of how do we eat more real food? How do we eat less fake food, avoid the processed stuff and slowly start to shift? And if you think about it through this spectrum, with one end being really overly processed food and the other being real, we’re just constantly trying to move toward that better option, and what’s super important, I think, for anybody, anyone, not just parents, is not to make the perfect enemy of the good, to really focus on progress and not perfection.
So, for us, when I learned is that artificial dyes were being used in products. That is linked to hyperactivity and as a mother of four, I thought, oh, my gosh, why has no one told us this? And so I thought, I’m just going to start to pull the artificial colors from the kids’ food, and for us, we had just tons of crap mac and cheese in our cupboards because at Costco you can buy it by the vat, and so we started weaning the kids off of just the fluorescent orange powder and adding things like butter or olive oil or salt and pepper, and slowly weaning them, and going from the multicolored yogurt to light yogurt. There were so many simple steps that you could take as you began to wean the kids off of them, and then I think what’s also really important for parents is to educate the kids too so you’ve got empowered kids so it then doesn’t become a battle or control issue or an eating disorder in your daughter or son down the road. You really got to empower these kids and say, “You want to be in your best form, playing your best game through life and the way that you can do that is to really be aware of what you’re putting into your body so that you can perform at your highest level.” I think that’s true for all of us.
So, ditching artificial dyes. I was looking for milk and dairy products that did not contain artificial growth hormones. For us, we realized that dairy really does a number on that, so we weaned way off of dairy and that felt really radical because we grew up with milk everywhere all the time and that was a strange generational shift, but what we’re seeing for so many families, you open a fridge now and it’s like they have almond milk or soy milk or rice milk or cow’s milk. It’s not one-size-fits-all anymore, and I think the faster that we can give ourselves permission for that, to really acknowledge, diet is no longer one-size-fits-all, the better off we can be because then we can really personalize it. In families today, somebody’s got food allergies, somebody’s allergic to peanuts, somebody’s dealing with Type I Diabetes, somebody may have ADHD and be really sensitive to these food diets. Every family is dealing with something different and I think the more that we can recognize that food can just be the greatest form of health care or the greatest form of harm. As you mentioned in the US food industry, the processed food industry, they’re pretty good at how to get us pretty hooked on their product, and one way that they do that is they really jack up the sugar content because it can really hook people in a way that some doctors will argue is worse than any kind of drug. We’ve got hidden sugars packed in everything from bread to mustard to ketchup. It’s hard to realize and it’s hard to break that addiction, so the more that you can get off the fake food, get off the processed food, and again, do not make the perfect enemy of the good, just prepare a simple thing, get your kids in to the kitchen with you, the better off that you’ll be.
Hoff: Absolutely, and I think that you really hit the nail in the head with the sugar issue, and I think for so long, we concentrated on calories and fat when we looked at something that we’re about to buy and bypassed the sugar, but if you look at even cereals that seem healthy; they’re not the Cookie Crunch or the Fruity Pebbles which you know are filled with sugar, but you look at something that even seems like granola, it’s a little bit healthier, and they’ve got 20 grams of sugar per serving? A serving’s probably half of what a kid eats in the morning. It’s crazy to think–I heard once that five grams of sugar is one sugar cube, so you’re putting four or five or six sugar cubes in front of your kid in the morning, that’s what they’re eating.
O’Brien: I know. I think for those of us who were raised in the 80’s and 90’s, when everything went fat-free, we were taught to fear the calorie, and then they just jacked up diet sodas with these artificial synthetic chemicals and what we’re are realizing now is here in the United States, one in two men and one in three women are expected to get cancer. Cancer is the leading cause of death of American kids from the age of 15. It was not like that 30 years ago. So, as we step back and say, “Okay, what can we do?” Because obviously, we can’t control everything and we live in a real world. You got to operate. We’re not in a cave.
I think one of the first steps that anybody can take is, how do we reduce our exposure to things like pesticides in our food? How do we reduce our exposure to things like artificial growth hormones? These chemicals and these ingredients that literally wasn’t even invented yet 20 or 30 years ago, so how do we reduce our exposure? And the most obvious way is to look for products that are labeled USDA-organic because by law, those products are not allowed to contain genetically engineered ingredients which have been treated with this weed killer Roundup. They’re not allowed to contain these artificial growth hormones. They’re not allowed to contain the artificial colors and dyes, which is kind of gross when you think about how the alternative is, conventional foods are treated with things like that. Yet as I look at that and I thought, okay, that’s great. I’m glad we have the standard USDA organic which means by law, these artificial ingredients are not allowed but the price point of those products is still higher than conventional, and the reason is because at the federal level, our tax dollars support conventional agriculture and conventional food, and basically the processed food industry. The organic farmers have to prove that their products are safe, so they pay fees for that and then have to pay fees to label their products so their whole cost of production is higher. And when I ask an audience, which would you rather choose, if you had a choice of where your tax dollars are allocated, which food system would you want to have be more affordable, more accessible? Most people, they’re going to say organic because the Americans are largely shifting to that form of agriculture and that choice in their food, but we’re not given that choice. Again, it speaks to the generational work that has to be done where the system that we’ve inherited from the 20th Century doesn’t work for 21st century families anymore, and so we need all hands on deck.
So, where I can, I speak and do education and advocacy work. There are other people that are really focusing on how is this impacting school lunches. There are others that are talking about, at the federal level, is this how we want to be allocating our dollars? There are people that are now running for office on these campaigns, and I think the opportunity in front of us to build a better, safer, smarter food system is huge. In the United States, less than 1% of our farmland is organic, only about 4.5 million acres of 900 million acres in the United States, only four million are organic, and so even if the CEOs of General Mills and Kraft, and Kellogg’s, and Coke, and Pepsi all decided to, yes, we’re going to go organic – we don’t have the supply chain. What’s happening is we’re importing 70% of organic soy, we’re importing 40 to 50% of organic corn. We’re not growing the food the Americans want here in the United States. So again, the economics are just upside down and I look at that and I think, there’s a huge upside for our farm economy here in the United States, a huge upside to the food industry here in the United States if we can build out the supply chain. It creates jobs. We can have it be made in America. We are not dealing with all these imports and what-ifs, and we don’t even know if they’re getting proper inspection, how they’re happening in China and other countries, that’s where this organic comes from. So again, I think food security and health are national security issues and we’re not in a good place right now, which means we have huge opportunities to create it.
Hoff: So, what would you suggest to a parent or an individual, maybe who doesn’t have children but they want to make sure that they’re getting clean, healthy food into their body? What would you suggest they do at an affordable level in order to start getting food that is not treated with different chemicals and that is healthier? Do they need to go to a local farmer’s market? What should they be doing in order to start getting this food at a more affordable rate than just going to the most expensive boutique grocery store and spending $200 for two bags of groceries?
O’Brien: Yes, that’s a great question. So, the first thing I would ask anybody listening to do is, what’s the thing you eat the most? Most of us have something that’s like our go-to, whether it’s apples or – there was a joke lately about the avocado toast–whatever it is. What’s your go-to item? I’d go organic with that, pick out one thing, the thing that you consume the most. If it’s milk, go organic, if it’s orange juice, go organic because what we’re realizing is that the whole food production method, especially the pesticides are increasingly being linked to cancers, low birth rates, all kinds of issues in children. So pick the thing that you consume or your family consumes the most and really try to go organic on that item.
It is so important not to make the perfect enemy of the good because that’s where you just give up, and giving up at this point is not an option. We’re dealing with too many health conditions in our families; they’re impacting us on a personal level, professionally, financially, economically, and so then the other thing that I just absolutely love seeing is, the mainstream grocery stores, like Costco, Walmart, Sam’s, Safeway, Krogers – they are hearing the consumer and they are realizing that more and more of us want products that are free from the artificial ingredients and free from all this junk. So, what they have done, they’ve introduced what’s known as the private label brands. You can walk into your Kroger and you’ll see simple, true organic and that’s their in-house, in-store brand of organic. And the reason that they can launch those things is because then they’re able to manage their profitability, their margins and they’re able to get us those organic products at a better price point. It’s fascinating to watch the growth of those private label brands inside these corporations. Kroger, for example, introduced their private label in 2012 and they’ve quickly, within a two-year period, went to a billion dollars in revenue. When you listen to their earnings calls, the CEO will say, “This is a bright spot in our earnings.” It’s what the consumer wants, and so it’s just giving the consumer what he or she wants. So, I look at the private label organic brands–Costco’s got it now, Walmart’s talking about it, Kroger definitely, I think just won, and I think if you look at Whole Foods, which I think has heard about the stigma of whole paycheck with the price tag and everything else, they are struggling. Their earnings, their sales, everything has been hammered down as these other corporations and other retailers step into the space. It’s important to remember that Whole Foods is only about 3% of our grocery store retail so where they really do sort of pioneer this concept for us and they really did introduce us to the concept of organic groceries and organic retail, they’re not the whole thing and it’s easy to find this stuff now everywhere, and thankfully, it’s happening across the country.
The demand is across the country, even fast food chains are starting to introduce healthier options. The most important thing we can do as consumers is ask the store managers for these things. If you’re not seeing the product that you want to see, ask, and when you do see the product that you want to see, it is so important to say thank you because I think that we really grow the movement, there’s a tendency to think that we’re the only ones that feel this way, and I can promise you, we’re not. It’s across the country: it’s in Charlotte, it’s in Richmond, it’s in Dallas, it’s in Austin, it’s in Houston, it’s in Birmingham. It’s not just in New York and in California anymore, and so the power of a thank you I think is incredibly strong, and as we do that, then they are reinforced, they realize that there is a reward system and there’s feedback, and then they can continue to expand those aisles in the grocery store which is exactly what we’re seeing.
The other thing I want to mention is in these farmers markets which is fascinating. Now, here in Colorado, we’re really lucky because we have incredible farmers markets. We have access – I recognize that other states may not have that same kind of accessibility where you can’t find your local farmers, where you can’t, in a restaurant, say “we’re working with our local farmers.” That is good for the local economy. That creates jobs for the local economy. This is about so much more than food. And I really think when you have a system that is as broken as our food system is, it’s just broken across the board, from the federal subsidy, to the farming, to the pesticide overuse, to the genetically engineered ingredients that were never labeled – there’s huge opportunities to build a better system and as we do that, there’s jobs, there is incredible economic upside. There’s opportunities for export from the United States to our key trading partners, and ultimately, the companies that are getting in front of that first are the ones that are capturing market share and continuing to drive their profitability in the marketplace. The ones that are really denying the obvious and really trying to dismiss or marginalize the concerns of their consumers, they’re quickly becoming obsolete. And again, the ultimate power lies with the wallet, in our purchasing power, and you cannot underestimate that. So, if you’re not seeing what you need in a grocery store, figure out how to get online, go to the Facebook page, go to the contact us page, track down somebody who could put you in touch with the store manager because they really are listening. The food industry margins are just razor thin, and so if they can have more insight from the consumer to exactly what we need and what we want which is increasing the products that are free from dairy or gluten, or allergens, or GMOs, or high-fructose corn syrup, they’re going to respond because that’s the immediate feedback they really need.
Hoff: So, you have four children, what are some of your tricks to getting healthy, good food on the table that doesn’t take hours to work on in the kitchen or doesn’t mean you’re just eating salads? You mentioned instead of mac and cheese, take some pasta, boil it, throw some shredded parmesan cheese on there or some olive oil and butter. What are some of your tricks for getting food on the table that still doesn’t take a lot of time and is healthier, and isn’t just eating salads that your kids may not touch?
O’Brien: Yes, that’s great advice. So, we keep it really simple. When I was working in equities, I met Martha Stewart when she was taking her company public, and I realized I’m not Martha Stewart. I don’t have all of these funky herbs and spices and things in my cupboard. That has never been me, and then as I was waking up to how bad the food industry supply was and I had leaned really heavily on processed food, I realized I needed to learn how to cook and I felt really stupid not knowing how to. And one of the things that I decided really early on was, I never wanted my children to feel that way, so I pulled them into the kitchen with me one day, I mean, they could barely see over the countertop and I just said, “You’re going to be at my side and we’re going to learn how to do this together.” Because it’s really not hard, and I think about my grandmother who’s 105, I mean, she cooked for four boys in a really fast, simple, straightforward way. They weren’t in this era of abundance and so there was simplicity to the way they prepared real food. So, I really drew on that, and they’re just basic ingredients like olive oil, and salt and pepper, and garlic. Kids can produce almost anything, whether you’re talking about whipping up some chicken breast or sauteeing some asparagus, I mean, that’s not complicated stuff, and so that’s really what we did, was we taught the kids how to cook and we kept it really simple. We do have four kids, three are now in high school, and my youngest is still in middle school, and what I absolutely love the most is, once everybody’s kind of gone to bed, maybe 11 o’clock at night, we’ll hear them trickle back into the kitchen, the four of them, and they’ll whip up a snack, and I think that’s probably one of the greatest gifts that I’ve received out of this work, is to have these kids that know how to prepare fresh food themselves.
The thing you’ve got to do to make that happen is, you’ve got to ditch the processed food. You can’t rely on it, you can’t have it in the house, and seeing every once in a while, somebody will complain. The kids will say, “Oh, we don’t have any food here.” Well, we don’t have any processed food, and it just means you got to take it out of the fridge and create something yourself. It doesn’t take more than 10, 15 minutes to whip up something as simple as a quesadilla. And we taught the kids how to do that, and I think to really just have them at your side, don’t be afraid of keeping it super simple. Don’t be afraid of the kitchen getting a little bit messy. We always have music going in the kitchen. I was always teaching them and whoever was by my side really wanting to cook that day to choose the music that was playing as we prepared the food, so it it was really fun. It’s important to recognize that this is as important as brushing your teeth or flossing, or exercising. It’s just something that you do every single day.
Hoff: Absolutely, and instead of adding to our grocery list, let’s subtract something: what do you think is the number one food expense that a lot of us make that is most detrimental to our health and our children’s health?
O’Brien: I think dumping things like soda and juice is so easy. There’s no nutrition in that, so you really got to think about that spectrum: on one end is a list of products that are void of nutrition, and on the other end is a list of product that are nutrient-dense, and so you really want to be mindful that putting your food dollars toward nutrient density which are those real, whole food ingredients, things like vegetables and fruit, and broccoli, and real ingredients, and not just the fake stuff full of all of these artificial ingredients. So, for us, that was a super easy drop off of the list. I think we shifted away from simple things like all these salad dressings that you buy. When you have oil and vinegar in your cupboard, it’s so easy to make your own. I think we lost the knowledge, we just–we lost it, and if you sit down with your grandmother, she’ll tell you–and so I think there’s just sort of with this generational drop that happened where the education just dropped, any of us, when we sit down with our grandmother, she’ll tell us the stories about how they make things. But for us, I really think if you dump those sodas and juices, those are just wasted calories. And it’s so much more than weight, and I think that was the other thing, that growing up, everything was weight, weight, weight, weight, weight. But health is so much more than a number on a scale, and I think to be mindful of that going forward, how do you raise healthy children? It’s not just that number on a scale.
Hoff: Absolutely. I think one thing for me is, I just avoid fancy cookbooks because they’re very intimidating when I see that I have to get 20, 25 exotic ingredients to have in something. I Google simple recipes for whatever it is I want to cook, and I make sure it doesn’t have more than 5 or 6 ingredients and a few steps. And I think that makes cooking a lot easier than if you try to tackle these cookbooks and you say, okay, I’m going to cook at home now a lot, and then it quickly becomes overwhelming because of course you’re not going to have one of those ingredients in your pantry.
O’Brien: I know, and I think we sort of have this notion that cooking has to be this perfection in this art, and really, at its core, I think it is the greatest way to show love, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s almost like, oh, if you couldn’t do it perfectly, we’re not going to do it at all, and that’s where I really emphasize: Don’t make the perfect enemy of the good. It’s so important to give yourself permission to shift. And if you’re learning how to cook, pick one thing that you’re going to cook, and if you have to supplement around that with some processed foods as you’re learning, that’s fine. But get on the spectrum and start moving, and truly, it is one of the greatest gifts that you can give your kids, is their ability to cook something out for themselves or for their friends. It’s so empowering. And then, the second thing that I would suggest is to grow something. Growing up in Houston, Texas, it was hotter than anything so we couldn’t grow much of anything, and when we moved to Colorado 17 years ago, I’d see all these neighbors around us growing these beautiful gardens and I just thought, I can’t do that, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, and I really had to rewrite that script in my head.
We’re students, all of us at any point in our lives, have to ask the question to find the solution. We have this great next-door neighbor, I just ask her, “How are you doing this?” And she gave tips, and so I thought, okay, let me start with a pot, we put some tomato plants in a pot, and my thought was the kids came home from school with these lima beans in a cup. That’s, like, the most fundamental way to grow something. Don’t be afraid to start small, and so we started really small, and now we have this gorgeous garden and it’s just my most favorite thing to do every year but I didn’t know how to do it a decade ago, so give yourself permission to start small. Give yourself permission to start where you are with what you have, because that’s ultimately going to make you successful. If you try to be like everybody else, if you try to achieve some standard of perfection, you’re just setting yourself up for that failure. Give yourself permission to start small. If it’s one meal a week that you’re going to be like, okay, fine, we’re not going to order out, we’re not going to pick something up, we’re going to start with one meal a week. Start there. That is a huge great first step and should really give yourself permission to focus on progress not perfection.
Hoff: Great, and I want to briefly touch on food allergies. I know this is a topic that you are very passionate about, especially when it comes to the cost of epi-pens or allergy medications that a lot of parents need for children that have severe allergies to peanuts or eggs, or soy. Is there an affordable way to make this happen and make sure that you have what you need?
O’Brien: So, I think this is the tip of the iceberg. What we saw with the first wave was these epidemics circle the health of our children when we’re talking about food allergies or autism, or diabetes – Type I diabetes which is supposed to be the one that’s not linked to diet, that’s also increased in just staggering numbers. So, we’re just seeing these epidemics swallow our children, and that was sort of the first, the first reaction of parents was just to brace and deal with that, and then now what we’re seeing is just skyrocketing prices of these medications and these drugs. Epi-pen became the poster child for corporate greed in the pharmaceutical industry. They jacked up the prices of that drug 17 times over 600 percent. You go to any pharmacist, they say it takes about $2 to make the thing, and they were selling it for $600 or $700, Mylan was. So, there’s the huge allergic reaction to that kind of greed in the marketplace, and parents revolted, there was this congressional hearing. But what was fascinating is we really kind of worked through that issue which is still very much on the table. I started hearing from other families, other demographics, and realized it’s the same thing that’s happening in the diabetic community for the price of insulin, and so what these pharmaceuticals have realized is, they’ve got a captive audience, and that when it comes to these medications like an epi-pen or insulin, you cannot live without them and they have gotten away with charging just exorbitant prices on those drugs. So, where to really rethink food and redesign the food system, with such a medicated society as we are today, sadly, we’re going to have to do the same with pharmaceuticals and I think again, the industry model that works for pharmaceuticals in the 20th century is not going to work in the 21st century because we are so sick. When you look at the rates for Alzheimer’s and autism, and diabetes, and obesity, and cancers, I mean, the runaway rates of cancers and the cost of cancer medication. Something is going to have to change.
Hoff: Is there an affordable option for an Epi-Pen? Are there coupons out there? Are there ways to drive the price down?
O’Brien: That’s been really interesting, and again, I think it speaks to the marketplace. And just as I spoke about the grocery stores and the store managers really responding to our needs, probably the greatest example of the reaction to the price gouging of Mylan Pharmaceuticals and epi-pen was, CVS Pharmacy, the CEO of CVS Pharmacy is a mother of four who has a child with food allergies. She decided to introduce a generic alternative that costs $9.99 and is available at CVS Pharmacy, and what Mylan and Epi-Pen did was, they launched a marketing campaign that just put the fear of God into any parent’s heart if you didn’t use Epi-Pen, and what we’re realizing was that was just PR and marketing. Now all these alternatives are starting to come on the market. Again, the patent that protected the Epi-Pen–that invention’s from 1977, so it’s not like it’s anything new, they were able to use patent laws that floored competition every time that they get in the way, a competitor coming on the market, they protected a three million dollar revenue stream each day for Mylan Pharmaceuticals. So, they had that ton of incentive to really have that monopoly, to keep everybody out. What we’re seeing now though is that behavior by that company has forced congressional investigation; there’s FDC investigation, there’s FTC investigation, and what we’re going to see is an opening of the marketplace. We need that to happen across all of these different conditions and diseases. We’ve had oncologists write into the New England Journal of Medicine, that the cost of cancer alone is going to bankrupt the medical system. Well, the same thing coming from doctors that are treating diabetes: they’re saying the cost of diabetes is going to bankrupt the medical system, so the system as it stands, is not going to work going forward, to lower the barriers of entry, to introduce competition into the pharmaceutical industry, figure out a way to get the safest, most effective products on the market. And it’s not going to be easy because right now, one in three products that go through the FDA end up being recalled for some kind of safety concern. So, is the FDA the system that we need for the 21st century? In other countries, they have a food agency and then they have a separate drug agency, and I honestly think given this day of both our food system and the state of the health of our country and the incredible dependency on pharmaceuticals, it does make sense to have two separate agencies so that they can truly focus on the categories and the products and the industries that they need to focus on.
Hoff: And finally, what would you say are your three top tips that we could all do right now to get started on investing in our health?
O’Brien: I would say get a water filter, dump the soda and the juices, get a water filter on your kitchen sink or get one of those pitchers that filters the water. Drinking water is just an awesome, super smart way to protect your health and get yourself off of the liquid candy bars which really are what sort of what juices are. Eat more real food and eat less fake food. The more that you can swap an apple or banana and orange for some bag of chips, the better off that you’re going to be. I would say definitely learn how to cook. You don’t have to be some top celebrity chef whipping up some gourmet dish. You can just think like your grandmother did. Think about how she prepared food; really basic, simple, true food, and then I would say plant something, even if it’s just herbs in a pot in your kitchen, plant something because it’s really empowering and it connects you to the work and the love that goes into growing our food, and I think we became divorced from that knowledge and we’re seeing the impact of that, and the more that we can have this food awakening and come back to this incredible knowledge of how true health care begins on our plates, the healthier we’re going to be as a country, as an economy, and as families.
Hoff: Absolutely. And finally, our show is called Charged Up. What gets you charged up about educating people about food and helping make food affordable for everyone, not just those who can worry-free shop at luxury grocery stores?
O’Brien: There are a couple of things. The first part that totally inspires me is this generation of children. I see and hear from families every single day, I know how hard it is, I know how isolating it is, I know how scary it is, but I also can see what’s happening. As we really start to regain our health, we see the light come back, the energy come back, the ability for families to get sleep, I mean, there’s so many things. So, this generation of children deserves so much better than this title of Generation RX which totally fires me up to give them that so that by the time they reach adulthood, that we really have shifted the system and begun changes so that they have the option for a healthier adulthood and they can have kids that are healthier than they are. On the one hand, that is a very personal motivation to me. The other part to me is just, I look at building an industry and I just think that is so exciting and that is the opportunity in front of us right now. Organic food, that sector is growing faster than any other part of the food industry. It’s growing at somewhere to 11 to 14%, and provincial food’s just flat, and if you have any other sector that is growing that fast, it’s such an interest across so many sectors, whether you’re talking about technology and app platforms, and education, whole food farms, there are so many ways to get involved. There’s huge economic upside there, and so the opportunity for our generation to literally build an industry is unprecedented and I think that’s where it’s like, who doesn’t want to be part of that change? You can do well and do good, and that to me is what’s so exciting.
Hoff: Absolutely. Robyn, thank you so much. A fascinating discussion, lots of great tips. Definitely, I would suggest go Google her, Robyn O’Brien, look at your TED x talk, read your book “The Unhealthy Truth” and just start making these slight changes in your diet and your family’s diet, and start reaping the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Robyn, thank you so much.
O’Brien: Thank you so much, Jenny.