Why We Ditched the Food Dye

Why We Ditched the Food DyeWhen my son was a toddler he was unpredictable. He had violent outbursts and inconsolable meltdowns that seemed to come out of nowhere. By the time he was 4, I had read a library of parenting books and hadn’t gotten very far. There had been many suggestions that he had ADHD, though he was too young to diagnose. I was looking for natural remedies for ADHD when I came across many, many articles suggesting that artificial food dye can affect susceptible children behaviorally.

With nothing to lose, we cut all artificial food coloring from our food. This isn’t as easy as it seems. Colorful candy is obvious. Marshmallows are white so they should be fine, right? Nope! Many use blue dye. Frozen waffles and canned rolls use multiple colors.

However, we did it. Within two weeks we had a different child. He was happy. He could communicate when he was upset. He no longer lashed out when angry. This change was worth it!

Halloween came a few months later and we weren’t sure how to handle it. We decided to let him have colorful candy just this once. The next day was the worst I have ever seen him–but it reaffirmed why we were doing this. Now for Halloween we have a system where he picks out candy ahead of time and we do an elaborate swap game when we get home. Birthday parties are also tricky to navigate between the juice, decorated cake, snacks and treat bags. I send him with his own ice cream sandwiches and pure apple juice.

However, we were still experiencing very bad days that would send us pouring over the ingredients of everything he had eaten in the last 24 hours. One ingredient kept popping up: annatto. Annatto is “an orange-red dye obtained from the pulp of a tropical fruit, used for coloring foods and fabric.” It’s found in many things that are yellow/orange–think Goldfish crackers and yellow cheddar.  I did some digging and found that despite it being a natural coloring, some children react quite severely to annatto, including hyperactivity, self-harm, agitation, irritability, and incontrolable defiance. My son throws himself into walls and floors and people while loudly babbling incoherently. He is unable to answer most questions asked of him. He often has to sent to his room for safety–both his and his little sister’s. Annatto’s out.

So, where do we shop? What do we buy? I shop exclusively at my local natural food co-op– check here to see if you have one nearby. Over the past 4 years we have found marshmallows, frozen waffles, canned rolls, even chocolate candy with a colorful candy shell. We even make a version of marshmallow Peeps. The only ingredient I have to worry about there is annatto; foods with artificial dyes are not sold there. There is nothing missing, except the tantrums.

For more information check out Die, Food Dye, and read this study on just how much dye is in a brand name foods.

Shannon Smith is a mom to two children.  

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