Food coloring made my kid crazy…

posted in: Holistic Wellness | 22

…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!

Color Explosion

Our Story

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!


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Kylie Wiser is an herbalist specializing in skincare and women's health. She shares recipes and resources on Everblossom to help others live a more holistic lifestyle. She lives in Fargo, ND with her huge family and lots of houseplants.

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22 Responses

  1. Chrystal @ Happy Mothering

    We try to avoid artificial dyes as well. I actually had a guest post on this topic a while back that stirred up a lot of controversy:

    Have you tried Maggie’s Naturals? I haven’t tried it, but saw them at Expo West and it has been on my to-do list to check them out. I had not thought of using food powders – that’s a great idea!

  2. Brittney Minor

    We have no food sensitivities in our house, but we try to avoid artificial dyes. I love that you can use veggie powders to add color! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Xaka

    This problem is more prevalent than we realize, I think. Artificial food colors are petroleum-based products. I think one main reason they tend to mess with our chemistry is that we are not supposed to eat petroleum (or any of its derivatives)! I’m glad you are aware enough to protect your child. We put way too many artificial, non-food chemicals in food these days. It’s disturbing and our children are carrying a much larger toxic load than we did at their ages. It would be great if you could do a blog entry about various health foods that carry toxic substances in them. I’m too busy to google everything! lol

  4. Tracey @ Dont Mess with Mama

    Thanks for posting such an important story. I think a lot of people ignore the signs of an allergic or behavioral reaction and just keep eating artificial food dyes. We try to eliminate as much as we can – really the only time my kids will get it is at a birthday party for another kid.

  5. elle mental

    My son has an allergy to red food dye which triggers ear infections and hyperactivity. It was very hard when he was small to impress upon friends and family that he had a serious issue with food dyes…what harm can a little Kool Aid do? I never fed him artificial colored things as I made most everything we ate from scratch, but when he would come home from a visit to friends or from Grandma’s house, he would be climbing the walls, out of control and in 24 hours his ears would be infected. It took me a while to figure out what the culprit was and eventually I had to limit visits with those who wouldn’t take me seriously about his food sensitivities until he was old enough to say “no thank you” to things that were offered to him that were bad for him. Thanks for posting!

    • Kylie Worthington

      I know how you feel, Elle! Thankfully our family respects our choice to avoid them, the only problem is that not everyone realizes that they are in so many foods you wouldn’t expect..

  6. Megan @Love Letters 7.10

    I had no idea that this was even a food allergy! My husband was diagnosed with ADD as a child and I wonder if it was (and is) linked to his food consumption. I think we’re going to have to try the elimination diet to see if it brings about any positive changes.

    Love Letters 7.10: The story of and earth minded family and their journey to a simpler life.

  7. Angela Clearman

    I found your blog and love it. Do you have any videos of how he acts? My son does some pretty weird stuff. He is currently on Amoxicillian and it is red so I am guessing it has dye in it even though no one will give me an answer. He has only 3 more days on it thankfully. I just worry about him so much. No one listen’s about not giving him things with dyes in it. His teacher at school now knows what I am talking about. She would give me looks when I told her I didn’t want him to have stuff with dye in it. Now after she has experienced his horrible behavior and he actually bit a kid the other day she is with me on the same page. I am going to get her to write a letter of her experience so I have someone else’s experience and maybe someone will listen to me. Have you found a dr that will agree with you? They say it is not an allergy. I have taken him to an allergist to get answers. He has been diagosed with having front temporal lobe seizures and generalized seizures and I don’t think he has seizures I think it is related to this other dye thing. The neurologist won’t listen to me. I am at a loss.

    • Kylie Worthington

      Hi Angela, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. I don’t have any videos actually, but now that you mention it I wish I had taken some! I’m not 100% sure but I am willing to bet that the medicine your son is taking does in fact contain red dye. Many children’s medicines do have dyes. Honestly, I wish I had more advice for you about getting people on the same page about your child’s sensitivity to food dyes. He is YOUR kid, so what you say should go. If I were in your shoes, I would be finding a different Dr. Good doctors do NOT brush off what PARENTS who LIVE with their kids and know them better than anyone have to say.

      On a final note, if you are on Facebook, I would encourage you to check out the Raising Natural Kids page and post your question there. There is a great, knowledgeable community there that is always very helpful in answering questions.

      I hope you get the support that you and your son need, Angela! Don’t ignore your intuition!

  8. yourfriendrobin

    I hadn’t tried the powders… I think that’s a great idea. We are a dye-free family, too. I made pink icing with free-dried strawberries (blitzed) and it tastes delicious. I’m eager to try other flavors.

  9. Anonymous

    Do you have a trader joes Anything that is under the trader joes label is free of any artificial.coloring. additionally, there are no artificial preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, gmos, or trans fats.

  10. “Health Foods” To Avoid

    […] Yogurt – Not all yogurt is created equally. Some brands contain artificial food coloring and flavors – not healthy. Low-fat yogurt isn’t a great choice either, since it is more […]

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