“Sorry, my kids can’t have food dyes.” I find myself saying this a lot lately. A lot more than I ever thought I would when we went dye-free a little over two years ago. Who knew artificial colors were in so many things?
Our journey began a couple years back when a friend’s simple Facebook post bewildered me. It was something along the lines of, “3 days dye-free and my son is a completely different kid!” Dye free? What did that mean? I couldn’t even wager an educated guess. I perused the comments and quickly gathered that her five-year-old son had been struggling with some major behavior issues. Things had gotten so bad that she was on the verge of putting him on medication for ADHD, because they just didn’t know what else to do to help him. A friend of hers had suggested eliminating food dyes as they had been linked to hyperactivity in children. Apparently it worked. I was skeptical, but really curious. I dug in.
A simple Google search of “food dyes bad” proved there was indeed a big controversy about the use of artificial dyes in food and hygiene products. It shocked me a little. I like to think that I keep up on the news, especially with regards to healthy living. How had I never even heard about this? After a lot of reading and researching, it seemed there was ample evidence that at the very least artificial colors weren’t healthy. At worst, they were messing with your brain, causing allergic reactions, and increasing your risk of cancer. That was enough for me to say we didn’t need these in our life anymore. How hard could it be to ditch the colors? I mean, we’d already made a lot of changes to eat healthier. This would just be one more little step in the right direction.
I started going through our cupboards and the fridge. Yikes! Cereals, gravy, crackers, cookies, gummies, Jell-O, puddings, macaroni, soy sauce, salad dressings, ice cream, yogurt, cherries, pickles, juices, marshmallows, cheeses, rice mixes, cake mixes, soup mixes, the kids’ vitamins, and on and on and on. I started to panic a little when I saw the big pile of food on the table that we could no longer have. What can we have?? I took a break from the food and started sorting through things in the bathroom. Nearly every lotion, shampoo, soap, conditioner, mouthwash, toothpaste, perfume, and deodorant we owned had artificial colors in it. Now I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. Is it really worth throwing out all this stuff? What if there aren’t any alternatives? Will I have to make everything from scratch now? Do I have time for that?? Maybe I shouldn’t have started down this rabbit hole…
Cue my white knight. Though I’m sure he wasn’t *thrilled* to come home to a kitchen table full of food and soaps and an anxious wife, my husband graciously listened to my explanation. He said it sounded like cutting out dyes was worth a try, if what I had read was true. He wanted to research it more himself while I went to the store to try to find dye-free replacements for everything we were tossing. I sat in the car for a few minutes, because I wasn’t even sure where to start. I decided to go to Wal-Mart. Partly because it was the closest place that had both food and hygiene products, and partly because I figured if they had alternatives than maybe this wouldn’t be so hard (or expensive) after all.
Thankfully, my Wal-Mart trip was an encouraging one. One of the only items I have yet to find a dye-free replacement for is instant pudding. Gosh, I miss that stuff. But it’s not that hard to make it from scratch or just go without. All in all, a small price to pay for dye-free living. I made a lot of discoveries on that first shopping trip, and on my follow-up trips to different grocery stores. I also spent a good amount of time scouring popular restaurants’ websites for ingredient lists so I’d know what to order when we ate out. More on all that later.
The journey was not over yet. There was still one more surprise.
Our oldest son, J, was almost three when we cut out artificial colors. I thought he was a typical nearly three-year-old, riding your standard preschool emotional roller coaster. I wouldn’t even have categorized him as that emotional; he seemed pretty sensible for a three-year-old. But, man, when he lost it, he LOST it. I thought that’s just what kids did. I didn’t like it, but I chalked it up to a case of the terrible twos. Within a week of eliminating food dyes, we noticed that J was much more in control of his emotions. Could he have been effected by it the same way my friend’s son had been effected?
As with any theory, we had to test it to try to eliminate our bias. We let him eat some food that contained what our family now calls “yucky colors”. The next day, J was all over the place emotionally. Freaking out for absolutely no reason, and there was no reasoning with him. It broke my heart. Trying to hold him, comfort him. He just bawled, screamed, pounded the floor, clenched his fists and gritted his teeth so tightly his body shook, and at one point I found him crouched behind the sofa holding his head and crying. God only knows what set him off. But once it started, there was no stopping it. The next day he was pretty out of it. The day after that, he was back to being logical and relaxed. J still throws fits from time to time, as kids will, but he is easy to calm down and responds to rationale.
J’s behavior pattern has repeated every single time he’s had food dyes. The day after: nutso. Two days out: space cadet. Third day: back to normal. Occasionally, J will still accidentally have food dyes at a friend or relative’s house. We can always tell when he’s out of control the next day. Then we wrack our brains trying to determine what could have caused this episode – most recently it was peanut butter Cheerios that a friend shared with him over the holidays.
We see the signs clearly now. But that doesn’t mean other people (mostly well-meaning family members) believe that J’s reaction to artificial colors is real. I empathize with them. Ten years ago if I’d had friends who said their kids couldn’t eat the awesome caramel brownies I made them because of food dyes, I’d probably be annoyed too. Or, at the very least, I’d have thought they were paranoid. I’ve been told my kids are missing out because they can’t have the brightly colored treats that the other kids are having. That’s not a fun conversation to have. It’s also not fun to ask family members repeatedly to please stop offering your kids certain candies while they roll their eyes at what is perceived to be your overprotective parenting.
I get it. I really do. We are not easy to have over for meals if you do not already know what foods have artificial colors. You may even put some effort into preparing what seems like safe food, and you feel hurt or disappointed when we still have to refuse parts of the meal for the kids because, oops, there’s dye in that. You didn’t know. It sucks. It sucks for all of us. We want to be good guests, but we also want to protect our kids. We are still figuring out how to tactfully navigate these social situations. The other day, a friend of mine mentioned that her cousins are allergic to Red #40; they get horrible rashes all over their bodies. Maybe it sounds bad, but my gut reaction (in my head) was, “I wish my kids got a rash!” I don’t actually wish my kids would get a rash, but it would certainly make it easier for people to believe that our son has a bad reaction to food dyes. When it’s just a behavior, it’s really hard to convince anyone.
At this point, I’ve mostly given up on trying to convince people that food dyes are dangerous. Instead, I try to convince them to read about it for themselves. There are plenty of reputable sources with articles on food dyes; they’re not hard to come by. Like I said before, it’s crazy easy to Google it. There’s a lot of information out there. These are some articles I’d recommend as a starting point:
Forbes – Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Food Dyes
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks
Dr. Mercola – Are You Or Your Family Eating Toxic Food Dyes?
Dr. Oz – Food Dyes: Are They Safe?
The Huffington Post – Halloween Warning: Watch Out for Neurotoxic Artificial Food Dyes in M&M’s Candies
Fox News – Foods Americans Eat That are Banned Around the World
Okay, now for a confession: I still occasionally partake of dye-filled treats, like my beloved Dr. Pepper. Sometimes I crave it. Darn you, Dr. Pepper. You’re my weak spot. Generally, it’s not challenging for me to avoid food dyes. We don’t have any in the house and I’m a stay-at-home mom of three small boys – we don’t get out much… 99% of my time is spent at home with zero artificial colors. So do I just go crazy on food dyes in that remaining 1% of the time? No. Do I sometimes grab a Milky Way and a Dr. Pepper (formerly hailed by me as “the snack of champions” in my college days) when I’m running errands without the kids? Yep. Sometimes you’ve just got to live your life, even if that means you’re kind of eating poison. And I really believe I’m kind of eating poison, but it sure hits the spot from time to time.
I know it’s horrible logic, but I justify my indulgences by calling to consideration that my brain is probably already pretty messed up from all those neon colored Gushers, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Kool-Aid I had back in the 80s and 90s. Seriously, I had a lot. I’ve always had a major sweet tooth and a high metabolism. Nothing holding me back from going crazy on those beautifully colored candies.
I guess what I’m trying to say is it doesn’t necessarily have to be an all or nothing deal with food dyes. There is so much wisdom in the old saying, “Everything in moderation.” Even with J, we try so hard to help him avoid eating food dyes for his benefit (he’ll be the first one to tell you he hates the way those yucky colors make him feel). But if we’re at his friend’s birthday party and all the other kids are eating a delicious-looking cake with bright blue and red frosting, we’re not going to stop him from eating it. We leave the decision to him. It’s his life. He can choose to live it how he wants. He’s old enough to weigh the consequences. We all have to learn to own our decisions.
Don’t feel too bad for J. Yes, it’s not easy to avoid food dyes all the time, especially around the holidays or at parties. But our kids still get lots of delicious treats, like chocolate, lollipops, gummies, cookies, pudding, gelatin, ice cream, popsicles, and much more. Actually, lots of companies are starting to offer dye-free versions of their popular products. And there are many brands that never used dyes anyway. It really isn’t too troublesome to find safe alternatives to your favorite foods. I’ve also learned that it’s not difficult to make dye-free meals and treats myself from scratch. Sure it takes a little extra time and planning, but I love cooking so that’s actually been kind of fun for me. I’ll share some of my favorite easy, dye-free recipes in a future post.
After all is said and done, I’m so happy we decided to take the plunge and cut out artificial colors. If you’re considering going dye-free, just know that the learning curve is not as steep as it may seem. And, in my opinion, it is well worth your efforts!