Dye-Free in a Brightly Colored World

A few weeks ago Cordy came home from summer camp with bright blue streaks down her legs and blue around her mouth. I could already smell the artificial raspberry flavor, but still asked her about how she ended up covered in blue. “We had popsicles at camp!” she happily explained.

“But sweetie, you know brightly colored foods aren’t good for you.”

“Yeah, I know,” she replied, “but it was a special treat!”

And that special treat left her distracted and less in control for days. Sigh.

When summer camp started, I asked about bringing in dye-free foods for snack time. They said we could but that it probably wasn’t necessary, as they were making efforts at healthy snacks this year and couldn’t think of any that would have dyes in them. Fruit, water, all-natural lemonade, graham crackers, cheese sticks, etc – all safe for Cordy to eat. With that knowledge, and a reminder to everyone about Cordy needing to avoid food dyes, I assumed we were in the clear when it came to snacks.

I guess I didn’t factor in “special” treats. Her class takes several field trips, and as a result they sometimes get a treat for the kids when they’re out and about. Cordy is aware that artificial food dyes make her feel bad and that she shouldn’t eat them, but she’s also a seven year old who, at that age, would have to show the impulse control of a zen master to say no to a treat when everyone else was getting one.

We consider her reaction to artificial food dyes an “allergy” even though it technically isn’t. It’s listed on all of her medical forms under allergy simply because it’s too complicated to provide the full explanation. Allergy produces a better response from others than “sensitivity” so that’s what we call it to get their attention. Only it still gets overlooked by teachers and caregivers far too often. It’s not life-threatening so therefore it isn’t given the same consideration as a peanut or shellfish allergy.

But we know it’s there. We’ve seen the difference between Cordy exposed to food dyes and Cordy without them. When she’s dye-free (and by that I mean hasn’t had any in over a week), she’s calmer, better able to focus, and seems more present in our world. Her repetitive behaviors (pacing back and forth, flapping, etc) are decreased, too. She’s more in control of herself and seems happier as a result.

When she was younger, people tried to tell me it wasn’t the dyes – we were just giving her too much sugar. So I set up my own test. I kept her dye free for over a week, then gave her a sucker (rock candy) that had no dye in it – pure sugar only. No reaction.

Days later, I gave her the same thing, only this one was bright blue with artificial coloring. Forty minutes later, the signs were there: she couldn’t sit still, she was irritable, emotionally out-of-control, and she wasn’t as interactive with us. She stayed like that for days, just from one little blue sucker. It was a frightening realization.

We’re not perfect with keeping her dye free, but we try to minimize the damage. Still, it’s very hard to find treats free of dyes. Annie’s makes fruit snacks without the artificial coloring. And Welch’s has all natural freeze-and-eat juice popsicles that look very similar to the artificial junk ones.

I also was recently told about Unreal, a line of candy that is free of artificial food dyes, but still looks and tastes like many of the popular candies we see everyday. It’s just rolling out, so it’s still hard to find, but I did manage to track down and buy it at Michael’s craft store. Their version of M&Ms? Really good.

So after the blue popsicle incident, we brought a bag full of Cordy’s treats to her summer camp to hand out to her when others are getting treats she can’t have. She’s usually pretty understanding about it, especially when we can give her some of the more yummy treats. But I know she longs for Starburst or a sucker now and then.

I only wish more food manufacturers would remove the bright food dyes from their foods. There’s no nutritional value to these dyes and there are natural dyes that can be used instead. Don’t believe me? Look at McDonald’s new Cherry Berry Chiller. That drink is about as bright pink-red as it could possibly be without glowing. I thought for sure it was one giant cocktail of dyes and artificial flavors, but it isn’t. It gets all of its color from fruit and vegetable sources, and the flavoring is all natural fruit juice and puree.

Who expected that?  If McDonald’s can do it, there’s no reason other companies can’t do it, too.

I hear more and more stories of parents who are discovering their kids are sensitive to food dyes. I know we’re not alone in experiencing some kind of adverse reaction to dyes. Research has linked it to hyperactivity. Some kids get rashes and eczema from red food dye. Others have stomach discomfort. Others – like Cordy – have various behavioral changes. And these dyes are in everything the kids come in contact with, from candy to mac and cheese, to chewable pain relievers and even toothpaste.

Europe has already figured this out, and most foods there are artificial-dye-free or contain warnings about having artificial coloring int them. What’s taking the United States so long to catch up with a public health issues that other first world countries have already known and addressed?

For now, we continue reading every label and try to educate those who care for our daughter about the importance of keeping her dye-free. It’s not that we’re crunchy green parents against all processed foods (because our grocery cart would prove we’re not) – it really is a matter of our daughter’s health.

Photo credit: Photos by *Micky 

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  1. Very nicely said. I’m amazed about the McDonald’s drink! As you state, if McDonald’s can do it, can’t everyone?
    When my girls were younger, they would get a rash around their mouths (or the rest of their faces, and sometimes arms – messy eaters) after eating certain kinds of red foods. At first we thought it was tomatoes, and then maybe some spice, but finally concluded that it was the red dye that was the common factor. It never seemed to bother them and now at age 5 they don’t have a noticeable reaction; but it does make me wonder, if their bodies reacted in such a manner, wasn’t there some harm being done? We’re very lucky that it doesn’t SEEM to affect them now – but why should we be taking the chance? It’s not as though the dye is providing some nutrient or taste…

  2. Rachael Heiner says:

    I have seen those unreal candies at Michael’s and somewhere else… I want to say either Target or Rite Aid or Walgreens. Hopefully they’ll get more widespread soon!

    Honestly, I feel like McDonalds gets a bad rap. Their food is not as bad as a lot of other fast food, and when I am left a choice of something on my Weight Watchers plan, I often go there for chicken nuggets. They’re the lowest points and they’re made from white meat. I let my kids eat there on a regular basis because all the eat is the nuggets and the apples, and maybe sometimes the fries. And my son often works up a sweat on the play area. Anyhow, sorry I kind of went off there…

    In any case, I totally agree with you about the dye. I have no doubt it affects kids moods, especially with hyperactivity disorders etc.

  3. Hi,
    Great blog! I’ve been where you are now. Are you aware of the Feingold Association? It was formed by parents like us back in the 70’s and is still going strong supplying the info and support we crave. Among its many plusses, is the Foodlist & Shopping Guide which has 300 pages of products by brand names free of artificial dyes, flavors, etc., Reading leables doesn’t tell us all we need to know so that is why the group was formed. One more thing – I moderate a Yahoo group called Feingold Program 4 US that helps families like ours.

  4. Great post! My son is the exact same way. We have celiacs disease and a number of other food sensitivities with dyes being one of many but his reaction to dye is shocking! He loses all impulse control and for hours just wanders from toy to toy throwing then down on the ground unable to find contentment with anything. It usually takes 4-6 hours of him going strong and he just zonks out from exhaustion and then is unable to focus or cope emotionally for days. And I agree, Europe figured this out and within a week manufacturers removed all dyes and years later the US is still allowing food dyes. We all seem to think we are so smart and yet we are so far behind on safe foods.

  5. Anonymous says:

    CVS here in the DC area now carries the Unreal candy. I know that natural health food stores have natural M&M-type candies. Or you could get them on Amazon.

    There are dye-free Popsicle-brand popsicles, but you might have to hunt for them.

    I have the same problem you do. My son got rashes as a toddler from fake colors. Now he doesn’t…but he still gets crazy. It drives me NUTS when childcare gives him this crap!

  6. Anonymous says:

    If you ever want to guest post on my blog, or do a post swap – let me know – this piece is so my life! People think I am nuts when I tell them my son reacts to the food dyes! You may like this post – about how I found out about the junk he was being given in pre school – http://raisingnaturalkids.com/2011/11/02/this-just-in-i-am-officially-that-mom-saying-no-to-tbhq-and-other-junk-in-foods/ – will be sharing your post on the Raising Natural Kids facebook page! <3 Dawn

  7. Anonymous says:

    I noticed too with my son that he was sensitive (I also call it allergic on medical forms, just did as I sent him off to camp for the first time). He’s known he cannot/should not eat dyes and now HE (9yrs old) checks labels and when there was a Valentine’s Day party at school with bowls of skittles, M&M’s and pink frosting for their sugar cookies, he wisely chose to make his with the white frosting and the mini-marshmallows! I was so proud, I didn’t even have to tell him, he knew!

  8. It is refreshing and encouraging to read another parent’s struggle with the same issue that we carry around our home too. We have been dye and preservative free for approximately 2 months now. My children are very receptive to it. I had a medical scare a few weeks back and my children were staying with my parents for several days. In that short amount of time, everything we have worked for was wiped away. It was a nightmare after I came home from the hospital. My son was out of control, emotionally unbalanced, fidgity worse than normal, and just down right mean. We have been dye free again now for 3 weeks and WHAT A DIFFERENCE!! People look at me crazy when I read all the labels and try to explain what we are doing. I don’t care…I, like you, am doing this for the betterment of my children. It is healthy and has a huge impact on all of us. So again, thank you for sharing your story!!

  9. Lori Carpenter says:

    My daughter also struggles with these issues. We have found something that helps. It might be worth asking your doctor. If our daughter gets dye she has the normal behavior problems but the worst for us is about two days later. We have tracked it down to the dyes effect her sleep. We have learned if we find she has gotten dye we can give her a little phenergan on her wrist at bedtime. It helps her sleep and it helps with allergic reactions. We recently had to give her an antibiotic and a steroid with dyes. We gave her the phenergan every night and I was amazed by how it lessened the reaction. Worth a try!!! Better to just stay dye free but we can’t keep them in a bubble 🙁

  10. Everyone tells me my son does not have a problem with dye, but within minutes I see it. Thanks for letting me know its not just me!

  11. Hi, I just stumbled upon your site looking for dye free candy for my son. He has similar issues to your daughter, only he breaks out in terrible facial eczema as well. We are getting ready to do a blood panel to rule out major allergens (as I really don’t think he has issues with wheat, dairy, soy, etc.), he is getting ready for kdg and there is SO much (junk) food at school, I really want to have our t’s crossed and i’s dotted so we have a pretty good game-plan for him.
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  12. I shared this with Valentines Day coming up and all the red dye that will be offered to our kids. I feel bad for those kids who are getting punished for bad behavior after being fed dyes. We’ve been dye free for a couple years. Our wake up call was a restless, agitated, couldn’t sleep little girl after a trip to Boston Market for Mac-n-Cheese. Who knew it was full of yellow dye?! Ugh. I’m thankful for all the dye free options, but I do feel like the food police mom at school and church. A favorite of ours is Edy’s All Fruit Popsicle’s. A yummy, healthy safe occasional treat 🙂