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Reclaiming Our Children’s Health

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.

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.