…So we avoid it now.
I've always loved cooking from scratch and eating lots of fruits and veggies and all that, but it wasn't until I discovered that our oldest son has a food sensitivity to artificial colors that I got really gung-ho about it all. There really wasn't another option – food dyes are in everything, even seemingly healthy foods that you would never expect!
It was spring or summer in 2011 – my husband had just gotten home from flood duty with the National Guard and he brought a backpack full of Nutrigrain bars home with him. Yay, I thought, free food! So we were eating these snack bars like crazy and started to notice a disturbing change in our young toddlers behavior… he went crazy. He began displaying a few different troubling behaviors, like hitting himself, banging his head against the floor and walls, spinning in circles at length, intense tantrums like we'd never seen. He also often seemed really disoriented as if he didn't even know what was going on around him.
I had no idea what was happening to my little man and fired up the Google-machine for some answers. I came across a lot of stories from parents of children with food sensitivities, particularly to artificial coloring and gluten. Since the only big change in our diet around that time was the Nutrigrain bars, they were the first place I looked – sure enough, the filling is loaded with coloring. I immediately stopped giving them to Mercury and put him on a really bland diet of oatmeal, fresh fruits and veggies, and rice and beans. It was astounding how quickly his behavior went back to normal.
Some people have questioned whether it was simply the high amount of sugar in the bars that made him act that way. I think that the sugar definitely added to the situation, but I bake a lot (with honey, whole wheat flour, and other great stuff, of course) and know exactly what “sugared-up” Mercury looks like. It is pretty wild, but a whole different (and much less disturbing) kind of crazy than “Red 40'd up” Mercury. When he has sugar, he just acts hyper. When it comes to food dyes, they actually seem to change the way he thinks and experiences the world.
Eliminating food dyes from our diet is not always easy. For one, they are in pretty much every commercially-prepared food you can buy, so you have to be really careful if you buy that sort of thing. It can also be really uncomfortable to ask a bunch of questions when you're a guest at someone's home or at a birthday party about what's in the food. At home, we do pretty well, since I make most of our food. There are some things that we miss, but fortunately there are alternatives available now to make things easier! (More on that later…)
Why is food coloring bad?
Numerous studies mirror what we experienced, linking food coloring to behavior issues in children. In fact, some parents with children diagnosed with ADHD found that when they simply altered the child's diet to eliminate food coloring, they no longer had a need for medication!
The food dyes used in the U.S. are actually banned in Europe due to studies showing negative effects. Natural alternatives do exist, but they cost more for food manufacturers to use.
If you think your child has a food sensitivity…
An elimination diet is a great place to start. This is basically what we did; you offer your child only very clean, whole foods and then introduce new foods one at a time and note the effects and any changes in behavior.
Replace food dyes with natural options…
I haven't really found a pre-made natural food dye that I'm completely satisfied with, simply because each one that I've checked out either doesn't work very well or isn't actually natural. If you know of a natural, quality food coloring brand, please leave a comment!
I've had much better luck using vegetable powders. Since the only thing I really use dyes for is to add a little fun to special occasion baked goods, they have worked well for me. Red beet powder and spinach powder are perfect for dying foods red and green. And it sounds crazy, but the best purple I've found is the water left after soaking black beans! For yellow, try carrot powder or juice!
Does your family deal with any food sensitivities or intolerance? What creative ways have you found to get around them? Please share your stories!