Our family's journey to eliminating food dyes in our home began when one of our children suddenly started displaying ADHD-like symptoms, frequent headaches and stomachaches, and angry, violent outbursts. It was early 2016, and we had just returned from living in Europe for 2-1/2 years. Within a few months, we were suddenly dealing with issues we had never experienced before, and wondering what happened to our lovable, affable (though admittedly strong-willed) child.
Through a series of conversations with a friend who had experienced similar issues with one of her children, I became aware that food dyes can cause behavioral issues in kids. In fact, eliminating food dyes in my friends family had led to significant improvement in her kids behavior.
The timing fit. We had just returned from Europe, where food dyes are heavily regulated and not present in most foods, thus limiting our exposure, though not intentionally.
We decided to eliminate all dyes for a few weeks and see what happened.
The change was almost immediate. Within a few days, our child was noticing a huge change, and telling us how much better he felt. He reported a clearer head, a restored ability to control himself, and the absence of the headaches and stomachaches that had become common. I noticed a difference, too. It wasn't that every behavioral issue disappeared overnight, but it felt like my child had returned. He was able to remain calm and participate in daily activities without the daily meltdowns.
Honestly, it was AFTER this dramatic change that I began to research food dyes and their ingredients. What I found alarmed me, and also convinced me that eliminating them from our diets completely was necessary for the entire family, not just the one child who reacted severely.
Here are some of the things I've learned about food dyes:
- Food dyes are carcinogenic (cancer-causing). "The FDA has established legal limits for cancer-causing contaminants in dyes. Those limits are intended to ensure that a dye will not pose a lifetime risk of greater than one cancer in one million people." (Quote from Center for Science in the Public Interest)This is a scary statement in itself, but even worse when you consider that food dye consumption has increased 5-fold since these standards were implemented. There have also been very few studies related to the potential increase of risks for children, whose consumption is much higher per pound of body weight then adults.
- Food dyes contain arsenic, mercury, lead, and other contaminants. Some of the dyes used in foods today contain upwards of 10% of this cocktail of chemicals. Yellow 5 is estimated to contain 13% inorganic chemicals not strictly related to the production of the dye. (Source -pg. 10)
- Food dyes are banned or restricted in many countries, other then the USA. The European Union requires warning labels on any products containing dyes. The British Government has banned them altogether. Clearly, these governments are recognizing the dangers. (Source)
- Artificial colors pose other health risks as well. Tumors (of the nervous system, bladder, brain, and thyroid have been found in animal studies), neurological disorders, and allergic reactions have been linked to food dye consumption. (Source)
- Behavioral issues caused by food dyes are well documented. Hyperactivity and impaired concentration in kids are among the most common findings. In our personal experience, the effects were also physical (headaches and stomach pain). (Source)
After wading through all this research, one question stood out to me.
"But when it comes to food coloring, why should we have to prove just exactly how and why the substance causes a negative effect on the people who consume it before we can ban it? If this were a necessary or meaningful food ingredient in any way, sure, that would be a reasonable standard. But food coloring has no nutritional value. Why are we risking it?" (Emphasis mine) (Source)
Why are we risking it? This question goes through my mind every time I consider consuming something containing food dyes. Is it worth it? If I am the 1-in-1-million the FDA believes will get cancer from food dyes, will I think it's worth it then? What if it's my child suffering the consequences?
For me, for our family, I believe the answer is no. It's not worth it, for us. There are dozens of dye-free alternatives and healthier options, and that's what I believe is best for our family.
Practically speaking, it has taken some time to implement our dye-free diets.
We don't do it perfectly. Sometimes things slip by me (like the American Cheese on a burger, or the blue dye in vanilla icing (why??). But we're 99% dye free, and it's not as difficult as I imagined. My kids rarely complain, and we've found some great alternatives to their favorite foods.
Resources and Research:
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