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