Science Is Awesome
I write a lot about the effects of artificial food coloring on children’s health and behavior from the comfort of whatever chair happens to be free of laundry, but I rarely get the chance to spread awareness in person. This Tuesday I was lucky enough to be a part of our school’s annual “Science Night.” We had a great time helping parents and kids identify artificial color, flavors, and preservatives on food labels. We also talked a lot about “added sugars” for kids and adults. Our objectives for this event were to teach kids how to be savvy label-readers, to make shopping a little easier for parents, and to challenge people to try an elimination diet. It was such a great project, and easy to replicate…what follows is my report on how this idea grew into reality.
A couple of months ago I was in one of our school’s Nutrition & Wellness committee meetings, and our chairwoman brought up my blog. The committee members were very encouraging and grateful for the information. They suggested that I look into participating in our school’s annual Science Night. I was blown away by the level of enthusiasm and support!
One of the other parents in my daughter’s class had previously facilitated a healthy lunch planning class for parents at her son’s daycare. So I asked her if she’d be interested in partnering with me to do the Science Night display. I am so thankful that she agreed, because she brought some great information on sugars, and she totally rocked the signage. Her son, my daughter’s classmate, was a charming and helpful assistant.
I contacted the coordinator of this event, and she gave us a shot. Our teacher gave us permission to use her classroom. The classroom is equipped with a large Promethean board, so we set out to find great video, too. The search was on for helpful handouts, scientific data, and just cool stuff. We asked our class to bring in empty food containers with the nutrition labels still intact. I begged Whole Foods for healthier freebies, and they were generous with the fruit leathers and organic lollipops.
My partner and I met a couple of times to bounce around ideas, work up objectives, and prepare graphics. She created some beautiful posters and an e-mail sign up sheet. We loaded shopping suggestions and nutrition “Fast Facts” onto a digital picture frame and set it to cycle through slides every few seconds. I made up a sign showing the Flint Lockwood character from Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs saying “Are you SMARTER than a food manufacturer?”
And I was thrilled when a friend sent me a copy of this timely news story from a CBS channel in Minnesota on the dangers of artificial food coloring (Thanks, Kimi!). We played it on repeat on the huge Promethean board, and lots of people watched and listened. What I love about this video is that it’s recent, it’s American, and it’s just put together really well. I really think parents in our community could relate to it easily. I have other excellent videos on my DFD YouTube channel such as an amazing Australian school’s additive elimination test, but the Minnesota one really hit close to home in many ways.
Here is a 3-minute video overview of how our room was set up for the event. I apologize for my nasally sounding narration, as I was slightly sick with a head cold (sadly, I couldn’t even taste my “Back To Nature” peanut butter sandwich cookie reward when I got home).
We are lucky in that our parents are generally well-educated, and because of our proximity to several universities and the CDC, many of them work in scientific fields. So our school’s offerings on science night were outstanding – I hear that the “touch a brain” exhibit caused a real hubbub, with a long line of kids waiting to try it! Thanks to our “free lollipops” sign on our classroom door, we had our share of curious visitors, too. We brought’em in with the organic treats, and they stayed for the learnin’.
My daughter and I were at the school from dismissal time to well after bedtime, which meant that we both would be having dreams about that looped CBS video all night. She and her classmate happily explained the cheat sheets and mouse experiment to visitors. My family chatted with parents about our own food coloring reactions. We had really good traffic for about an hour and a half.
I received tons of great questions, one of which was, how am I an expert in this subject matter? I explained that while I’m not a dietician or nutritionist, my daughter and I are both allergic to artificial food coloring (See “Why I’m Over This Rainbow: Our Food Coloring Sensitivity Story” for more). I talked about what prompted me to create this blog, and how I want to help others who are concerned about food additives.
Most surprising to me was the fact that so many parents enthusiastically approached us to talk about their own dietary evolution. They happily shared what they have learned over the years on their own paths to healthier living. One parent, who is from Germany, explained that in Europe, food labeling is very clear and upfront. Several parents were more conscious of what they were eating because their children also had terrible reactions to artificial food color and other additives. Many of our visitors were thrilled to see nutrition information at their child’s school.
As educated as all of our community is, though, I observed that lots of folks were not aware of how much artificial stuff was in their favorite foods. Many were surprised to find out that food coloring and fake flavors in their drinks, baked goods, toothpaste, cereals, and treats were made from petroleum. Like me, they may have assumed that if something is sold in the US, it must be safe (See “Colorful Language” and “Devil In The Details” for more information on identifying artificial colors in foods).
We also talked to folks about seemingly healthy, low-fat, or organic foods that contained a lot of added sugars. When people found out that one serving of Nature Valley granola bars had an entire day’s worth of a child’s added sugar (12 grams), they were taken aback. The same went for the organic, 0% fat yogurt, which contained a full day’s worth of added sugars for a grown woman (20 grams). They began to see how it all adds up. I credit my partner Michelle for bringing the sugar issue to the forefront, because in my quest for dye-free treats, I was overlooking my daughter’s sugar intake.
The best moments happened when I was able to show kids how devious manufacturers trick shoppers into thinking they’re buying healthy foods. Everyone was blown away by the “blueberry” waffles label, when they found out that the product in fact did not contain any actual blueberries. Those dark blue bits in the batter are actually globs of high fructose corn syrup tinted with petroleum dyes like Red 40 and Blue 1 and 2.
People really seemed to like the information we provided about the “Taylor’s Fuzzy Brained Mice” experiment. A kid named Taylor trained four mice to run a custom-built maze for a few weeks. Then he added artificial yellow food dye to the water of two of the mice. He immediately observed that their run times grew longer and longer over the following weeks, while they were given dyes. They were confused, making mistakes, and forgetting how to get to the end of the maze. The mice that did not receive dyes maintained their run times throughout the experiment. However, as soon as he stopped administering the dyes to the two mice, those mice went right back to their previous performance times. You can read more about this on the Feingold Association’s web site here.
During the event, we got immediate positive feedback from parents and kids alike. Everyone asked such great questions, too. We heard that one child was even disappointed that her mom didn’t bring home a cheat sheet so that she could investigate her breakfast food labels the next day! Another parent said that this information needs to be shown everywhere – at schools and on the news. I agreed, and suggested that we take a leaf from Minnesota’s and Australia’s book, and even add this to our school curriculum. I think we can take this information to other schools in our county.
I really want to thank our school’s PTA, especially our awesome Nutrition and Wellness committee, for their support and ideas. I’m grateful for our principal and assistant principal, who made Science Night a reality. We, and all the kids who visited us, are grateful to Whole Foods Market for their generous donation of organic lollipops and fruit leathers. And of course our teacher, the parents, and the kids all helped collect food containers, and then showed up for the event in droves. Our successes depend on this high level of community involvement.
In the spirit of Science Night, I again urge you to “ask questions!” Just because a food container makes claims as to the product’s safety or advantages, don’t take it for granted – read those labels. And if you’re so inclined, send tweets and e-mails to your favorite food manufacturers, asking them when they will ditch the synthetic additives (like many of them have already done in Europe). Or you can really send a message to food manufacturers by “voting with your dollars.”
So…if your kid sometimes inexplicably changes from Jekyll to Hyde, or from a cuddly little Mogwai into a “gremlin” that’s been fed after Midnight, try an elimination test! It’s free and easy…just eliminate artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives for a week. Observe any difference in behavior, concentration, skin problems, bed-wetting, school work, or even handwriting. Post your results at the “Die, Food Dye!” Facebook page.
If this stuff excites you, join your school’s nutrition and wellness committee, familiarize yourself with your state’s Wellness Policy, and consider doing a presentation for your community, too.
Here are some of the resources we used:
Valentine’s Days resources:
Red Alert! School Valentine Parties Are Coming!
Spoonfed healthy school party ideas
NourishMD valentine party ideas and Healthy Party Planner for teachers
Nourish Interactive coloring sheets and DIY healthy valentines
For shopping help, try out these nifty apps for smartphones and informative sites:
If you or your child are living with a dye sensitivity, please consider sharing your story as a guest blogger at DFD! More information is here. If you would like to share your knowledge of recommended and/or bad products, please send me your e-mail address for access to pin foods to my DFD Pinterest pin boards! My e-mail address is admin[at]diefooddye[dot]com.
Now…”We’ve got some diem to carpe!”