Poisoning Kids With Bright & Colorful Foods

When Cordy was first diagnosed with autism, we looked into everything we could to help her. Therapy was expensive and involved long waiting lists, but in the meantime there were several doctors promoting supplements, medications, and diets that promised anything from a little help to a complete miracle.
I tried to be skeptical, or as skeptical as one can be when first finding out your child has a lifelong neurological condition that you would pay nearly anything to see disappear. I dismissed the big promises as junk science, but one topic kept coming up over and over: food additives.
Eliminating artificial food additives from my daughter’s diet was a simple enough solution to try, I thought. After all, it required buying no supplements or paying for some guide to the secret foods she must eat to behave properly. I just needed to read labels a little more closely, right?


I don’t know if you’ve been reading labels lately, but just about EVERYTHING has artificial food dyes in it. Candy, mac and cheese, juices, fruit snacks, crackers, grape jam, cereal, baked goods, applesauce, chips – the list goes on and on. If it’s designed for kids, it’s even more likely to have artificial dyes in it. When I first tried to swap out her regular favorite foods for dye-free foods, it was nearly impossible. Everything had dye in it, even when it didn’t need to. (Why would something WHITE like white cheddar mac and cheese need dye in it?)

Now the FDA is turning its attention to food additives this week – specifically food dyes –¬†and I’m carefully following the news to see what conclusions they draw. Since Cordy’s diagnosis, I am now convinced that food dyes play a role in her behavior, and when she avoids them her behavior is much better. She’s like a Jekyll & Hyde depending on if she’s ingested artificial food dyes or not.
Research shows that many children exhibit signs of hyperactivity when they consume artificial food dyes, and limiting the diet to remove these dyes often results in a dramatic improvement in behavior. The proof is enough for the European Union to require warning labels on foods containing artificial food dyes, resulting in fewer foods containing the dyes in European countries.
I’ve done my own experiment. It went something like this: Detox Cordy from all dyes for 5 days. Then give her a candy that has nothing artificial in it. (Plain rock candy sticks are great for this test.) Wait for any behavior change. In this case, no behavior change.
Then the next day, give her candy with food dye in it. (Blue lollipops are her favorite, and also her downfall.) Wait for any behavior change. After eating it, 30-45 minutes later she was a monster: unfocused, quick to tantrum, hyperactive, irritable, unsettled and sometimes feeling tired and ill. These changes can sometimes last 3-5 days from one exposure.
Suddenly it all made sense. I now know why holidays and birthdays were so traumatic in the past (colored icing on cakes and cookies!), why she always acted up more after a lollipop, and why cupcakes made her sick to her stomach.
Artificial colors are poison to my daughter. They alter her behavior, cloud her mind, and leave her unable to cope.
The worst part? They’re in most kid foods, and there’s no need for these dyes. Their only purpose is to make junk food look pretty and colorful so you’ll want to eat more of it. And there are plenty of perfectly good natural dyes that can be used in their place. Just look at the Annie’s brand of fruit snacks – all natural colors, but still bright, and my kids still beg for them.
It is maddening to find dye-free foods for my family. We often have to shop in the organic section of the grocery store to find safe foods, and because they’re in the organic section they cost more.
Teaching Cordy about what she can and can’t eat has been difficult, too. She is old enough now to understand that dyes make her sick. She’s even admitted to us that she feels “bad” (as in sick or unwell) when she eats something full of dyes. She can’t read labels yet, however, so she has to rely on adults to tell her what’s safe and what’s not. (Although she’s getting good at seeing most brightly colored candy and saying, “That will make me sick.”)
But we still have to take away 80% of her Halloween candy and trade it for safe snacks. And it’s hard when even the schools encourage her to eat Skittles as rewards in the classroom, or popsicles on the playground because all of the kids are getting them. They think they’re being fair to her, but they’re only hurting her. Fair is actually NOT giving her the popsicles the other kids are eating, so that she’ll be able to function in the classroom after recess.
I’m tired of food manufacturers saying that artificial food dyes are safe. They’re not. Most are made from coal tar or petroleum. Some have been labeled carcinogens. I don’t need Red #40 in my ice cream to know it’s strawberry – that’s why I have taste buds.
I e-mailed Kraft Foods over a year ago and asked why they needed to add yellow food dye to their famous blue box of mac and cheese when there are safer natural yellow dyes that could be used instead. The response was that the FDA had declared it safe to use, and they have no plans to change their ingredients. It was a beautifully written pat on the head with an underlying tone of, “Well, bless your heart, you poor crunchy nut. We don’t care what you think because kids like neon glow in the dark mac and cheese.”
I hope the FDA won’t bow to the lobbying from the food industry this time and will, at the minimum, require warning labels on any foods containing artificial food dyes. And then maybe Cordy’s favorite mac and cheese will decide it’s time to change their ingredients so she can eat it safely.
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  1. In Mexico, they make these beautiful popsicles called “paletas” that are all different colors and are made from actual fruit and sugar and water or milk. Sometimes nuts – my favorite is called “nuez” and is full of pecans. I guess we can’t do that here because, well, you’d have to use something other than sugar, water and artificial color and flavor.

  2. I’m so sorry that you repeatedly come up against such ignorance. Sadly, this world runs on money and not common sense, respect and dignity.

  3. Condo Blues says:

    I never thought about artificial dyes until you started writing about Cordy having issues with them. Now I notice dyes are everywhere! And even though I’m kinda a crunchy tree hugger it bums me out that there’s some stuff in my house she or anyone with an issue with dyes can’t eat.

  4. Headless Mom says:

    Thanks for this. It helps to actually know someone that has real issues with this. Being a blogger has opened my eyes to so many things.

  5. This is near and dear to me. I’m a HUGE believer that food can heal, and in the reverse as well. Although my children are healthy, and I’m grateful, I’m very careful about making sure what they eat isn’t full of artifical dyes and chemicals. I’ve found alternatives for pretty much anything my children want, although to be fair, they’re not in school yet, so there isn’t a lot of peer pressure.
    For mac and cheese, Annie’s makes one with not artifical dyes, and tastes really good!
    Thanks for writing about it, I think this issue needs more exposure, then parents can start demanding more, or feel empowered to look for alternatives.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I’m lucky that my kid typically does alright with most dyes but found that she is super sensitive (like my brother is/was as a kid) to red food dye.

    My normally well behaving, calm, attentive, loving child becomes a terror after having red food dye. The worst part is how upset she gets adding to the problem because she feels so out of control- I avoid exposing her like the plague. Which luckily is easy for us, though my mom thought it was rubbish. After experiencing it for herself, she realized that maybe we weren’t kidding. Gee, thanks mom! ARGH!

    The truly sinister bit is that even if it is not red, you have to watch out for the red dye! Blue items (esp kool aid) has red dye! (what my mom gave her, luckily she would rather have milk or water!)

    Good luck with school and others recognizing that dye=not helping here and will refrain from making her suffer!

  7. Hi there! I found this blog through your UBP post at Mommys Must Haves and am really glad I clicked through!!

    My son is 9 and has autism. He has been on a mostly no-artificial diet for 6 years (as well as gluten and casein free). Just in the last year, we have been able to find one or two safe fruit snacks in the regular aisle instead of the organic, so there is a bit of progress being made, but it is very slow.

    Looking forward to reading more of your story!

  8. This would surely explain why sugar has been blamed for making kids hyper for years and years, although recent studies have shown that sugar itself doesn’t have that effect nearly as much as previously thought. It’s most likely the additives.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Check out the Feingold Association- http://www.feingold.org They are a great source of information regarding food additives!

  10. B's Mom says:

    I have been making a conscious effort to avoid ALL goods with not only the artificial food coloring, but also BHA/BHT, MSG, Sodium Nitrate, Trans-Fat and anything boasting ‘no sugar added’ (which typically implies empty calories which will store as fat). It’s disgusting what is allowed into our foods and especially into the foods we feed our children. Where WE are the ones making the food choices for them we need to make the RIGHT choices- the best and healthiest choices. Unfortunately, that costs a lot of money- but their lives are priceless so we have to adjust our budget and go without some things (like cable tv) to make sure we can afford to bring only the healthiest foods in our home. It’s important that these topics are brought to light- some people just don’t have time or consider such a thing until it’s brought to their attention. Thank you for your part in doing that!

  11. It is actually disgusting that it took this long for Kraft to remove these artificial dyes, when in Europe these were already replaced. It is also so messed up to me that the FDA allows these things. It seems their rule is everything is OK until we are made aware of problems after everyone has been consuming these things. So much for protection and regulation… as well as the fact that Organic is more expensive. Why is that when there are no additives, and it is natural? Because Organic farmers and companies have to pay for certification, when pesticide and artificial chemically ridden foods are dirt cheap. It’s almost as if the FDA is fighting us. We keep getting shot down of our right to have these harmful products labelled. Big corporations run this, and they will continue to as our government must profit off of these companies. That’s probably why they get away with poisoning our society. I’m beyond fed up with our system… Less and less liberty and freedom in all aspects. Just disgusting.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    My daughter gets a severe facial tic when she eats food dye that last 24-48 hours. It took us 2 years to figure out the cause of her tics. I am not sure what color trigers this – we just avoid them all. Still it is tricky as she is 12 now and although she is very careful still gets hit with it sometimes. It is so frustrating that this is even in our food system and equally as frustrating that moms are believing this is okay for their families and spending money on products laced with food dye and other non food junk! Vote with you dollars mom:)