Why I’m Over This Rainbow: Our Food Coloring Sensitivity Story

I heard about the link between food coloring and dyes with children’s behavioral and health problems a few years ago, but I didn’t make the connection for our own family until this summer.

A little background information about us – Our child is hypoglycemic and was born with a severe allergy to cow’s milk.  She grew out of the cow’s milk allergy by about three years old, but we still manage her blood sugar with regular and bedtime snacks.  I fed her only organic stuff until she was about three, which is when I loosened my standards and gave in to the candy culture.  Friends and family wanted to sweetly share treats with our outgoing girl.   She suffered with bad eczema as a baby and toddler, which I never attributed to a dye sensitivity…I thought it was related to her milk allergy, or that she just had sensitive skin like me.  I was dealing with adult acne at the time too.  We tried changing laundry detergents and bath products.

Tip Of The Unnaturally Blue-White Iceberg: How We Found Out About Our Food Coloring Sensitivity

I used to get compliments all the time about how calm my child was, everywhere we went.  Tantrums weren’t her thing, and she had only had a few of them as a toddler.  Her behavior changed somewhere after she turned three, but I chalked it up to that whole three-year-old normal independence phase…except her phase seemed way more intense than it should have been.  A friend gave her one yellow M&M at a restaurant once, and within minutes she went from happy and calm to a screaming, kicking, tantruming tornado.  I had to physically remove her, legs and arms flying, from the restaurant.  I thought the sugar had affected her, but then again, she was fine after eating sugary stuff in the past…

This summer was so hard.  Our calm, reasonable, bright child was having very emotional tantrums, slamming doors, spitting, kicking, screaming, throwing stuff at us, saying awfully mean things, falling apart over tiny mishaps, spacing out, ignoring us, not finishing school work, even growling.  Homework was impossible, and we couldn’t reason with her anymore.  She would hold onto anger all day, couldn’t cope with anything, and started having foot sensitivity issues (sock seams were torture, the pool chlorine made her feet itch to the point of tears).  I was pretty much pulling my hair out and reaching for the mommy juice a little more often than I liked.  And I was acting differently too.  I hated my role as warden, mean mommy, drill seargent.  I was miserable.  I went from being excited about our time together, to counting the days until school started again…eleven…more…weeks…

I thought she was reacting to our big move from Florida to Georgia.  What if she had some deep-seated resentment towards us for uprooting her life?  We talked a lot and she seemed happy here.  One day, I thought back to what she had eaten the night before a very scary hypoglycemia episode.  We had no idea she was hypoglycemic until I couldn’t rouse her one morning at around age two.  She was weak, slurring her words, heavy, clammy, and didn’t want to wake.  An ambulance ride to the ER and some tests showed that her blood sugar was dangerously low.  She was treated with sugar solution and food, and snapped right back.  But the night before, she had eaten a few M&M’s after dinner…I’ve since read that there could be a connection between hypoglycemic reactions and food dyes…

Again, I talked myself out of this logic, not really knowing enough about it to make a diagnosis.  We tried cutting out sugars.  We tried cutting out chocolate.  We thought maybe we should talk to her doctor about the possibility of ADD/ADHD or sensory issues.  But she would be fine on sugar or chocolate some days, and not fine other times.  It was not consistent, nor constant.  I was hoping to help my kid without medications.

Then a friend mentioned that her oldest child had a food dye sensitivity.  She said some things that really hit home for me – that the difference in her child, on and off food dyes, was like “night and day”, and, that they were concerned enough to consider therapy.  Other parents tell me it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I’d like to add that I was starting to feel like Coraline’s “other mother” on her bad days – sans spider legs (although, that may have been coming next).

Holy bird.  I started researching food coloring and food dye reactions in kids.  That sugar-free pudding?  Yeah, it had food coloring in it.  No wonder she still changed into a hyper (and deaf) monkey right after eating it!  Looking in our pantry, I discovered that LOTS of foods we’d been consuming had dyes.  So, I dumped all the dye-laden stuff and went on the hunt for dye-free replacements.  Labels became my ally.

After we changed our diet, our daughter told us how the dyes had made her “feel mad all the time.”  This made me think of those times during a tantrum when I’d ask her why she was doing those things, and she would cry and say “I don’t know!”  I could relate to that feeling (more on my own dye sensitivity revelation in My Rainbow Connection).  Within a couple of days, we noticed a real change in our child – she was calm, even on sugar.  When she had gummy bears once at summer camp, I could watch the transformation – hyperactivity, that crazed look in her eyes, the growling.  After we replaced said gummies with a natural alternative, within a day, she was fine…in fact, she was turning down offers of dyed gummies and offering her natural ones to friends.  Our last two weeks of summer were WONDERFUL.  Peace at last!  I felt sad when summer was ending.

I started looking for other parents who had been through the same thing.  I would fit this new issue into conversations with friends and strangers, eager to relate to SOMEONE.  The reactions?  Crickets.  Or worse, they would go “Ohhhhh” and look at me with either concern, or fear (kids, step away from the conspiracy lady!).  Occasionally I would hit a familiar note with strangers, but it was few and far between.  Nobody seemed to know about this.

I had no idea that food coloring was made from petroleum.  It has been linked to cancers, hyperactivity, obesity, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, sleep disturbances, and even bed-wetting.  And worse, the more I researched, the more I realized how underhanded and sneaky food manufacturers were in their marketing and labeling.  Foods and beverages marketed to kids were misrepresented at best (more about that in Artificially Rose-Colored Glasses, and Devil In The Details).  Oh and don’t get me started on the European versions of US manufacturers…we have the capability to make these foods without petroleum dyes?  Really?  Then why the hell are they not doing it here in the US?

At The End Of The Rainbow:  Why I’m Writing About The Dangers Of Food Dyes

My goal now is to end the use of petroleum food coloring and dyes in US food, beverages, medications, and personal care products.  If first lady Michelle Obama is as serious about children’s health issues as I think she is, then perhaps I can bring this problem to her attention and garner support.  I hope that my message, along with your stories, will reach lawmakers, parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and school districts.  You can start right now by sending your personal story to Center For Science In The Public Interest here.  Send letters to your representatives…here is a cheat sheet to get you started.  And if you and your child are interested in sharing your story, send me an e-mail at admin[at]diefooddye[dot]com to participate in my upcoming interviews!  And finally, if you know of any people or organizations who may be interested in what I’m doing here at Die, Food Dye! then please steer them my way.

27 Responses to “Why I’m Over This Rainbow: Our Food Coloring Sensitivity Story”
  1. Barbara says:

    Look at you little mama!! I am so proud of you and I am going to share this with everyone I can! I know quite a few people who just might benefit from this information. And thank you for educating us on this topic!! xxoo

  2. (kids, step away from the conspiracy lady!).

    HA!!!! I so totally got this reaction last week on the playground!!!!!

    • Indie Mama says:

      ;P I’m sorry that happened and yet I’m smiling that I can chat with someone who understands! LOL. Hopefully we can help spread the word to other parents and it will become common knowledge…I am excited about working with another parent to make a presentation at our school – showing kids how to read labels – and providing cheat sheets for parents. We are trying to get approval to present this on our school’s Science Night. Our nutrition committee is supportive. You know, even in preschool and daycare, you can do a presentation to the other parents about how to choose healthier foods – the parent I’m partnering with did that at he son’s daycare for the younger parents to help them pack nutritious lunches! 🙂 Can you imagine if at least one person at every school did something to spread awareness?

  3. mom of 3 intolerant kids says:

    We have been dealing with this situation for almost 20 years now. It took me forever to convince doctors our son was “allergic” didn’t know back then to use the word intolerance, to red dye. And you are right dyes are in EVERYTHING. 20 years ago finding dye free medications was virtually impossible. We also have another son who had the same issues. Still this day they get “hyper” but are better able to manage their behaviors. We used to joke that when they go to college and need to pull an “all-nighter” we can just send the red candy! Most parents and doctors alike would have put them on ADD meds and called it done. We fought and fought. Finally when our oldest was in 1st grade I got a call from the teacher, that he was acting out and disrupting the classroom. I needed to get him immediately. He was taking a med for an ear infection and I knew it had the dye, but the pharmacy swore it didn’t. When I arrived crying the teacher said to me “this is not like him, he has no control over his body or brain. I began to cry in frustration because the doctors still were skeptical. She said to me you go and call the doctor and let them know that he has no ability or act, reason or think like a child of his age. I finally got some understanding. There was red dye in the med he was on, but it was a secondary additive ( I called the pharmaceutical company). Apparently the label only needed the primary ingredients. Confused? I was too. Bottom line, we just removed the dye and I fought for specific drugs when they got sick. We later had another child, this time a girl and while red dye isn’t an issue she has MANY intolerances and at almost 7 we just had a bad night a few days ago. She exhibits some of the same behaviors you are explaining. Screaming, losing control over the little things that normally she wouldn’t, sleeplessness and the list goes on. This from dairy products and oil. Thank you for posting this and awareness is key! Teaching kids to read labels and ask about ingredients at a young age is VERY important. Better yet educating parents and caregivers first!

  4. Penny says:

    I finally figured out that I, as an adult, am intolerant to Red Dye #40 about a year ago. I know exactly what you mean about getting strange looks when you tell people about it! It has been very frustrating trying to find scientific articles and doctors that will even acknowledge the links. Most of what I find is blogs and forums full of personal stories. Red #40 for me causes, as I delicately put it “extreme gastrointestinal distress”. Within an hour, I’m experiencing cramps and headed to the bathroom as my body essentially shuts down digestion and tries to get the toxin out of my body as fast as it can. Definitely unpleasant! Now I avoid all dyes and feel so much better! Unfortunately, I think I have become even more sensitive, and if I accidentally consume even a small amount of Red #40 I can have a reaction within 15 minutes.

    Thank you so much for posting your experiences! I wonder now if some of the crashes and mood swings I had in high school and college were dye related. I definitely feel much more stabilized now. It is so nice to find other people who share my passion about getting this awful stuff out of our foods, or at the very least making it easier for people to find out if their food/medications has dye in it! I mean, does vanilla cheesecake really need Red #40 in it???

  5. Susan says:

    I just found your blog via the Feingold newsletter. So much of it resonated with me!
    “I’ve since read that there could be a connection between hypoglycemic reactions and food dyes…”
    “step away from the conspiracy lady” both sound like you are magically talking about me and my family.
    My daughter learned early to call her sensitivities allergies so her teachers didn’t blow off her dietary needs as pickyness. I used to have what my family called “the day no one could do right” the day before most of my periods; now I have very few PMS symptoms. I’ll be following your blog. Not only have you shared some very useful links, it feels wonderful to feel a sense of community around this issue.

  6. Melissa says:

    I am in food dye hell! I am at the point of throwing everything in my pantry out and starting over. I am willing to drive 40 miles to trader joes and whe foods just to have somewhere safe to shop! My 5yo turns into a crazed lunatic when eating red #40 and yellow #5! And boy oh boy that stuff is everywhere!

    • mkdunning says:

      Read the small print at the stores that claim to sell all organic. One store that I can’t mention the name were selling frozen veggies and fruits produced in China. There is no way to check what China puts or sprays on their veggies and fruits.

      • Indie Mama says:

        I remember the big issue with Whole Foods’s frozen vegetables made in China, yeah. Definitely worth reading everything on the label…

    • Indie Mama says:

      Melissa how is it going now?

  7. mkdunning says:

    It is not only food dyes, it is all process foods.I put all three of my sons on the Dr. Benjamin Feingold diet , no food coloring, preservatives or additives, in the early 70’s and it works only if you stick with it , take your list of chemicals that are in process food with you to food market and buy organic and make no exception. Homemade deserts and foods are your best way to keep chemicals out of your childs diet.

    • Indie Mama says:

      Yep, we found out that our daughter gets nauseous after eating foods fried in oil containing the petroleum-derived preservative, TBHQ. Definitely a good idea to avoid preservatives and fake flavors too.

  8. Emma says:

    Wow! This sounds like my life recently. I’ve been homemaking most of our foods/treats over the years due to various food allergies in my kids (many of which have been outgrown). My 6 yr old daughter was recently diagnosed with peanut/tree nut allergies. This has made school parties, holidays difficult. This Halloween I slacked off a bit and allowed more candy treats that I thought were “safe” (most chocolate is out due to the nut factor), and now I’m about to pull my hair out…my daughter has gotten hyperactive and nasty on several occasions (normally a very sweet and loving kid). She even acted out for the babysitter who she loves (sitter commented that she didn’t know what got into her)! That is when I started to think of a food connection (she gave the kids some “cheez-it” like crackers)…since then I’ve notice this crazy behavior after eating Skittles (last night’s treat) and marshmallows. I’m really thinking it might be food dyes and/or preservatives. My husband wants to “test” it, but I dread that (even though I’m a scientist) because it is SO difficult to deal with. I’m also hesitant to bring it up with the doctor fearing being labeled a crazy. UGH!

    • Nancy says:

      Hi Emma, you are so right, my son gets the same way, mainly due to yellow 5. You can find lots of recipes on the web for homemade replacements, I make marshmallow fluff and dressings from scratch. Even bbq sauce. The Mom guilt thing can be overwhelming at times when the kids accidentally ingest something they should not, and then cannot control themselves. Hang in there and know that you know your child like no one else. It gets easier, trust me.

  9. Nancy says:

    After I read you description of your child before you figured out what the problem was, I felt like I had wrote it. My son who could one minute be the most loving child on earth could also change into someone I didn’t recognize. He would scream, throw things, say horrible things and really just act out in any way. It didn’t matter where we were. I had started hating to go in public with him. One day after church he was an emotion mess. Crying over everything. I asked him what he had in class and he said lots of koolaid. So that night I started researching food coloring as I had already tryed no sugar with him and that was hit and miss. I found this page and read it and it totally conviced me. I already knew food coloring was bad but didn’t know that it could have that kind of effect on a child. I took him off and he has not thrown any fits. He is much calmer and more cheerful and he even has started liking school. So I just wanted to say thank you for writing this.

  10. Lauren says:

    We’ve noticed hyperactivity and behavior changes in our 3 year old when he has red 40 or possibly even yellow dye too..is there any testing to prove a sensitivity or only elimination diets? We would like to go to the doctor about it but arent sure which doctor to go to..should we even bother to ask the pediatrician or just go straight to an allergist?

    • Indie Mama says:

      Hey Lauren, very good questions. There aren’t any traditional allergy tests that can pick up on a synthetic dye allergy or sensitivity, so I’d recommend finding a doc who is also a naturopath. They have several ways of diagnosing and treating various allergies and sensitivities. But the only way to know for sure, and the easiest/cheapest way, is to try an elimination diet and take notes about meals and behavior in a “Food Mood Log” and compare notes with your son’s teachers to spot patterns too. Most people see a big change within 3-5 days after eliminating all dyes from food, drink, and medicines. Please let us know how you guys do with that.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Oh my goodness! That sounds just like my son! In every behavioral way when you describe “on dyes”! We know my son has a severe reaction to Blue #1. We made many ER trips and were wrongly diagnosed with a stomach bug multiple times until it finally dawned on me what he was consuming before the violent episodes occurred; food heavily dyed with artificial blue coloring! We stopped giving any blue dye (which was frustrating to find how many products that didn’t require it, contained the Blue#1) and the violent tummy issues never came back…then it dawned on me that the products I was using in his bath as a baby contained it as well and that had caused his eczema! So no artificial blue dye in my household but of course I constantly continue to give him food and candy heavy in red dyes because he “can” have it (and also Mommy feels bad about him not being able to enjoy so many things)! I am so blessed to have found your blog because I am now going to try his mood after removing the remaining artificial colors! I have to say though that this will be a highly frustrating endeavor as Melissa described above; food dye hell, this stuff is in *everything*! Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  12. Joy says:

    My daughter was diagnosed with moderate Sensory Processing Disorder at three. She was also eating a crapload of junk because she was insanely picky and underweight, so I figured I’d give her what she liked in moderation to ensure she was getting something in her body. That included dyes, of course :/

    One day at preschool drop off, I was lamenting the SPD issues, and one of the other moms said, “I read an article about a correlation between artificial dyes and sensory issues. That might be worth looking into.” And from there, it was my mission to get my girl on the dye free track. Her teachers, after a month of cutting out artificial dyes and flavors, were amazed at the transformation. Turns out, giving her a bag of regular fruit snacks before school wasn’t a good idea. Who would have thought? It’s incredible how much she’s grown and changed in the past year. Her Occupational Therapist has cut her down from a weekly visit to a monthly visit and wants to see her through the summer before graduating her fully. I talk about it to parents whenever I can, and I’m thankful that our community seems to have some like minded parents and easy shopping alternatives!

  13. marge says:

    Grandson has speech and sensory issues and attended early intervention. As a toddler, he also had skin sensitivity. We now believe food dyes are a problem for him. Finding foods free of dyes is difficult. Go-gerts recently advertised that they listened to parent concerns and removed the dyes. How about a symbol on foods free of dyes so parents won’t have to search so hard?

  14. Adrienne Ritter says:

    I’m so glad to have found someone with the same problem we have. My daughter is 4 and 1/2 we discovered ours early with gummies. Thank you for being a resource. Also I would like to help where I can to make a change to this food color problem we have. I signed and shared the petition, as well as your story. Let’s do this!

  15. Kristin says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog!!!!! We figured out after New Years that our daughter was sensitive to Red40. What a difference now that we’ve figured it out and gotten rid of the offending foods!!! Our first birthday party was this past weekend and she was so good about having her own cupcake and drinks. Nervous about valentines day …. Stocking up on the ‘trade treats’.

    Crazy thing is that I’m usually so good about what the kids put in and in their bodies…no parabens, cloth diapers, but the junk food crept in somehow!

    Thanks for writing all this.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] At the circumstances, it is not a surprise that growing number of moms and families are now turning to so called alternative, naturopathic and holistic health measures in attempts to minimize harmful medications and provide better help to their children. Shula Edelkind, the founder of the American Feingold Association represents one of the most notable activists in the movement for healthy clean food in America. You can find many heartbreaking stories presented on the Feingold Association website and also published by moms who struggle for the health of their children. […]

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