Food Dye Sensitivities: Our Journey to Cutting out the Junk

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but I don’t know…..I guess I haven’t had the right motivation to get me going.  I have not found the motivation until now that is.  A few weeks ago, the FDA met at the request of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to discuss adding a warning label to foods that have artificial food dyes as an ingredient due to concerns that they might be increasing behavior issues in some children.  Not surprisingly (to me anyway), the FDA voted 8 to 6 against the warning label.   Here is a pretty decent article summarizing what went down.  That’s fine.  It’s government, and there’s always more to the story than we see, namely money.  I do my own research without the help of the FDA and act accordingly.  I am sad for people who blindly follow their recommendations simply because they are the FDA, but that’s another post altogether.

So what does all of that have to do with our food journey?  Let me tell you.  Food dye sensitivities/allergies/whatever you want to call them are real.  Very real.  I have a child who is extremely sensitive to the dyes that are nonchalantly placed in so many of the foods you see in a grocery store.  I consider myself lucky to have figured that out by the time she was 24 months old.

Little miss H was a high needs baby, and as we entered into toddlerhood it became a struggle to figure out how to help her.  Some days were good, and some were not so good.  It felt like we were just all over the place with behavior, tantrums, sleep, etc.  Granted, part of this is just the nature of a toddler, but deep down inside I knew something else was going on.

One day an online friend mentioned that her daughter reacted horribly to red food dye.  I decided to do a little experiment and see what happened when I eliminated red from H’s diet.  I noticed pretty big changes.  The hubster was a bit skeptical and didn’t really see them at first.  But one day as we were sitting down at dinner, I looked at H and jokingly asked him what she had eaten that day.  He looked at me pretty solemnly and said, “I gave her a red jolly rancher.”  I think that was the moment that he realized how real this really was.  We vowed to each other at that moment that we would not allow her to have any red dye.

Easter came along a little while later, and we figured that we could bend the rules for the holiday.  We only let her have a tiny bit, but it was enough to send her (and us) over the edge.  She took forever to fall asleep, slept very restlessly when she did sleep, became aggressive, and lost any self control she would have normally had, and these all lasted for days, not hours like one would assume.  We both knew that it wasn’t fair for her to have to suffer for our bending the rules.  So from that moment on we decided to be strict in not allowing red dye.

And let me just say that it is extremely difficult to avoid dyes.  Potlucks are a challenge because there is no labeling, and you just have to make your best guess.  Some foods that you wouldn’t ever consider as possibly having dyes in them do in fact have a rainbow assortment of dye.  I learned very quickly that if we buy something out of a grocery store, the label MUST be checked and rechecked for dyes.  It was hard to get out of the mode of just assuming something wouldn’t have dyes and into the mode of checking every little thing.  I made a lot of things from scratch anyway, but out of necessity, I was forced into the from scratch thing even further.

As time went by, we noticed reactions (albeit not quite as dramatic as with the red dye) from other dyes and eliminated those as well.  We have also eliminated high fructose corn syrup from our diets simply because the research on that is frightening at best.  When we walk into a typical grocery store, there are very few things we can buy.  That is sad.  I wonder how many children are suffering with behavior problems, ADHD, and who knows what else simply because no one thinks to look at the foods they eat as a possible problem.  How many children are being medicated when a change in diet could be the cure?  Okay.  Off the soap box for now.

Having a child who reacts to dyes is a struggle.  For starters, people often look at me like I’m some wacky hippy mom (okay, I am!) with 3 eyes.  They often think it’s an excuse I’ve made up for poor behavior or whatever.  And how could my child possibly have problems when there are so many who don’t?  My parents, in fact, were pretty skeptical at first until they saw H “on red dye.”  I think that sealed the deal for them that this is real.  People expect hives, a rash, or an inability to breath.  Behavior and sleep problems are harder to see.  It’s a lot more subtle.  Ultimately, a lot of people will think we are just too hardcore and not letting our children “experience” life.  I can’t change anyone’s misconceptions, but I can protect my child’s health.

I just alluded to this, but there are social difficulties involved too, especially for the kids.  When we go to a party or someplace where there are treats, I often have to tell my children that they cannot have what is being served or that they can trade in the candy they were given for something safe when we get home.  I do my best to keep them from feeling isolated in these situations by always having special treats in my bag, but it’s not always avoidable.  I couldn’t ask for more better children in this area.  They know when they can’t have something and deal with the disappointment graciously.  I suppose that’s a life lesson they will carry with them for years to come.

Like I mentioned earlier, it’s also difficult to keep these chemicals out the mouths of my children.  They are in so many foods it’s ridiculous.  (And do I ever have a huge load of empathy for parents of children with other allergies, and especially ones who react with anaphylactic shock!)  But we have to be vigilant with non-food products too.  We have learned the hard way that a lot of chapstick is not safe.  Even medicines which are meant to help are laden with dyes.  Our local pharmacy knows now that we cannot give our kids the usual pink antibiotic, but that first time I went in to get a prescription filled for H, we had to get the script changed to an antibiotic that mixed up white and not pink.  Dyes are everywhere we turn!

And yes, although one child has very strong reactions to dye, we have noticed smaller reactions in our middle child and made a commitment to keep them out of our house and out of the systems of all of our children.  I do wonder what will happen when they are older and need to take a pill that doesn’t necessarily come dye free.  It will be interesting.

My mom has sort of wondered out loud if H will outgrow this sensitivity.  She has also mentioned that she hopes it is something that will dissipate with time.  At first I definitely agreed with her.  I mean, it’s really inconvenient to be checking labels all the time and be really picky about what our kids eat when we are not at home.  However, I do believe this is a blessing in disguise.  Our whole family is healthier without these unnecessary chemicals.  I might not be able to quantify our healthiness, but I absolutely think our bodies and immune systems function a whole lot better than they would otherwise.  I’m thankful that we figured this out with our first child and that she essentially forced us all into a better way of nourishing our bodies.


14 responses to “Food Dye Sensitivities: Our Journey to Cutting out the Junk

  1. Thank you so much for this post. We have just started trying to elliminate dyes, also starting with red. I have 1 who has been diagnosed ADHD (age 14) and another who acts just like his big brother. Hoping diet changes will help.

  2. Great post sweetheart. Sometimes I forget the craziness of our journey. It all seems so natural now, me standing reading labels and looking shocked at red french bread. It has been a good change. Thank you. YOU are the best at taking care of our family. I love you.

    P.S. Hubster eh? I like it almost as good as Daddy WarBucks.

  3. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. I realized that my oldest was sensitive when one day (after eating half a box of grandma’s tictacs) she donned a lion costume, ran out into the driveway and began to scream at the neighbors with hysterical euphoria “Look at ME!!!! LOOK AT ME!! Why isn’t everyone LOOKING AT ME?! I’m the queen of the WORRRRLD!” and then collapsed into a fit of tears. Insane.

    Brava to you for eliminating them, and thanks for this blog post! You can do it!

  5. I applaud you for your determination. You have done a great thing for your family. I wish that I could be as diligant. I know that it would really help my boys.

  6. Amen to this! Our bipolar child is particularly bothered by red 40. It can really bring on the manic symptoms. It is far from an imagined reaction, as we can definitely tell days when that child has red 40.

    The really, really sad thing is that the medication our child takes to help manage the bipolar disorder is colored with red 40. Irony much?

  7. I’m with Kristy. I think it is fabulous and I totally wish manufacturer’s would make it easier and just not put it in the food to begin with!

  8. Way to go momma! Keep it up!

  9. I have wondered about this for some time. I would imagine that we would all be better off without so much of the chemically processed / produced foods that make life so “convenient”.

    I recently started baking from scratch and find that the flavor is better, and it’s not as difficult as I was led to believe.

    What was it about her behavior at dinner that night (after the candy) that provided your husband the information to connect the dots?

  10. We have a child that reacts to food dyes too. I’m also trying to eliminate high fructose corn syrup, and I can’t believe how much stuff it is in!

  11. Thank you for sharing your story!!! I have often wondered how people have found that the dyes were the culprit to some of their struggles and issues. I often wonder if I cut it out of my kids’ diet if their behaviors would improve and perhaps skin issues would resolve. I may give it a whirl… we’re eating a lot more whole foods now so it wouldn’t be as hard as it once was!

  12. I need to do this but nervous! thanks for sharing

  13. Becky, you can’t imagine how many children are on medication because of a focus or behavioral problem. I see my middle schoolers put such awful things into their bodies and it is a wonder that any of them can focus or behave. On top of that, their sleep patterns are terrible. Good joy! Also, can’t wait to try your “Princess Dip” We love humus

  14. I just found this while trying to do a little research. I have a daughter with some behavior/attention issues and have been pondering this topic a lot lately. Could you share with me some foods/meal ideas that you use now for your family, please? Thank you!

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