Hindsight, Regret & This Dye-Free Parent’s Learning Curve

As my “Die, Food Dye!” blog approaches its six month anniversary, I look back with pride and astonishment at the overwhelmingly positive response.  I’ve met so many parents who can relate to our woes, and who are hungry for more knowledge.  I’m still learning every day.  And that’s what I want to talk about today…the fact that my road has not been a perfectly straight path from Point A to Point B.

I wistfully remember the early days of our parental journey not only because of the various parenting mistakes I made that were UN-related to food, but also because there were signs that our family had food sensitivities and I just…missed them.  It started in pregnancy…

I’ve heard lots of times that we often crave the things we are allergic to, kinda like being drawn to the bad boy in school.  In this case, the miscreant was a huge baby bottle filled with bright yellow lemon drops given to me at a baby shower.  I would find reasons to go into the nursery and do one more thing, just so I could grab a quick lemony treat.  This became a daily habit for much of my pregnancy.  And don’t get me started on that hoodlum, the pickle. Such a cliche, I know, but true nonetheless.  I had to have pickles on hand at all times.  Back then, I had no clue that these common items contained petroleum food colors such as Yellow 5 and Blue 1.

I also had no idea that synthetic petroleum food colors were linked to so many ills – Hyperactivity, attention deficit, cancers, mood swings, aggression, learning problems, bed-wetting, DNA mutation and neurotoxicity.  And I certainly hadn’t heard anything about how these dyes are contaminated with metals and industrial waste, which could affect my baby’s mineral levels…or how they could affect blood sugar.   That was, until one day when she was almost three years old…

One morning, my daughter slept in late so I went in to wake her, but couldn’t rouse her.  She was limp, heavy, pale, clammy, and couldn’t speak.  She couldn’t sit up or walk.  I couldn’t get the doctor on the phone so I called 9-1-1, and the paramedics informed me that her blood sugar was dangerously low.  We rode to the ER with her on my lap, and an IV of some kind of sugar water going into her tiny little hand.  I have never been so scared in my life, and I never want her to go through that ever again.  It’s hard for me to write about without tearing up.

She was alert within a few minutes after receiving the sugar solution.  She ate like a champ in the hospital, and the doctor could not provide any answer as to why she had this low blood sugar episode.  We left there grateful to have our child safe, and just ready to move on. But I kept racking my brain to figure out what had changed.  I knew that my husband had passed out once after giving blood and not eating.  But this wasn’t common for him.

Then I realized that besides a very healthy diet, we had allowed her to have a few M&Ms for the first time, the night before the episode.  Now, she had ONE M&M in her life prior to this.  At around age two, a friend gave her a yellow M&M after she finished lunch at Chick-FIL-A.  Looking back, I remember the surprising change in her behavior that day.  She went from her sweet, happy self, to a screaming, kicking, fighting tornado within minutes.  My child was never given to tantrums and did not ever have a “Terrible Two’s” phase.  She was complimented everywhere we went for her awesome behavior.  That day was the first time I’d ever had to remove her from a public place because her behavior was so awful.

I had assumed it was the sugar making her act crazy in the restaurant.  And the low blood sugar episode remained a mystery, until the summer of 2011.  I had eleven weeks at home with my then six-year old, with only two weeks of camps in sight.  It was a very difficult summer to say the least…My daughter was having huge hours-long meltdowns, tantrums, and way too many time outs.  She was still acting crazy even after we removed sugar (those sugar-free pudding cups would prove problematic, but prophetic, later on).  We would both be in tears by the afternoon, and I called my husband for support, some venting, and any advice he could give.  But I had already tried everything we could think of within our pre-decided parental purview.  I felt like quite a failure.

And then a friend asked me if I had tried removing food coloring from our diet.  Her teenaged son had been dye-sensitive since he was little, which I honestly had no clue about.  I had heard that food coloring might be bad, but, just like soda, I never knew exactly why.  When I started researching, I was horrified at what I learned.  I purged all dyed products from our pantry and fridge (which was a huge amount), and we noticed a change in our daughter’s behavior within a couple of days.  I couldn’t believe that what we were eating could have such an affect on our happiness.

The learnin’ didn’t stop there.  I read that hypoglycemia and hyperactivity could be related to zinc deficiency.  And that Yellow food coloring was linked to depletion of the body’s zinc. Huh.

I started this blog on Halloween, and connected with so many parents who understood.  I fired up the DFD Facebook page, and our little community grew.  Now I learn new things from readers every day – like the fact that my kid has a bad reaction to preservatives found in cooking oil.  My reaction was similar to when I was learning about food coloring – “Seriously?! Cooking oil?”  I was determined to learn more.  And as it turns out, my daughter has been my best teacher yet…

The poor kid nearly threw up her lunch at a fish taco place a couple of years ago, and we had no idea why.  Then it happened again at a different restaurant last year, which served lots of deep-fried fish and the like.  Just this year, she complained of stomach aches and a headache immediately after eating the school’s “fish nuggets” (the one time she bought school lunch because I was out of sandwich bread).  One reader, who represents the Feingold Association, told me that synthetic preservatives used in some restaurants’ oils can make kids sick (TBHQ, to be exact).  I found some delicious potato-battered fish sticks at Whole Foods (Praeger’s) and convinced my child to try them, against her better judgment.  She loved them, and had NO headaches or stomach aches.   Mind = Blown.  Fish was back on the menu!

Oh but our food sensitivities don’t end with just petroleum food dyes and synthetic preservatives, as it turns out.  My daughter grew out of a severe and scary cow’s milk allergy by age three (throat closing, body hives, projectile vomiting…the whole nine yards).  I probably should have already known that we were “prone” to food sensitivities.  I learned the hard (nay EXCRUCIATING) way, that we have a problem with a natural colorant called “annatto.”  After my blog was chugging along, a reader warned me about annatto, and I didn’t do much research until one thing caught my eye.  I read an article from the Food Intolerance Network about the link between consumption of annatto and reactions involving rage, head-banging, and…pulling out hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes.  This last bit is what made me take notice…my daughter had been pulling out large amounts of her hair, and her eyelashes, but she didn’t know why.

I stopped buying cheeses and baked goods from the natural food stores that contained annatto (not an easy feat, mind you).  I thought my job there was done, until one horrible night, just a couple of months ago.  My husband was working super late, it had been a long day, and my child was having a hard time settling down for sleep.  I remember cursing on the phone to my husband, saying how awful our child was acting.  She innocently asked for some water, which I usually don’t give right before bedtime (and she knows this), but instead of just saying no and moving on, I got on her case about it.  I reacted too quickly and became annoyed that she would not just let me go enjoy my evening.  How unfair to me, the self-sacrificing mother, that my child doesn’t appreciate my need for “my time”, I thought.  I remember feeling angry at some perceived injustice that had been forced on me.  I wanted to argue with her about what she was doing to me.  I wanted to make her feel bad for some reason, and I did.  I had no idea why I was feeling that way.

That was a bad parenting night.  I mean, I knew I was sensitive to petroleum food coloring…But it wasn’t until a few days later that it dawned on me:  That day, I had finished off a box of all natural cheddar flavored rice crackers.  There was NO mention of annatto on the label – it simply listed “cheddar cheese”.  Had I learned nothing from my own Adult Behavior Chart and Food Mood Log??

I started thinking of how my daughter acts when she consumes certain petrol dyes…She gets angry, anxious, aggressive, paranoid, and imagines dramatic schemes of how everyone is out to get her.  And she has no idea why she’s doing it.  Check and check.  Déjà vu.  Once again, the (sweet, innocent) apple doesn’t fall too far from the (crazy) tree.  And those Newton-esque “A ha!” moments just keep on coming.

I’d like to coin a new phrase:  “The tree should pay closer attention to what the apple is doing”…or… “The tree could still learn a thing or two from the apple.”

So yeah, just think of me as a walking science experiment.  Only there are no white coats and goggles involved (most of the time), and the smartest one in the room wears Hello Kitty band-aids.  I don’t mind so much…having survived and come out the other side relatively unscathed. I just hope my “teacher” will forget that awful night, or will at least use fake names when she publishes her results in her memoir.

Our bodies are so SMART.  And yet, like a toddler who prefers to walk around all day in a soiled diaper, we just don’t listen to them (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve uttered the phrase, “Now listen to your body!” to my daughter…).  It took me 39 years to put all this together, and it can feel overwhelming at first.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, please give yourself a break, and remember:  Let go of regret, try to make slow changes, and then recognize all the good you’re doing for yourself and your kids every day.

And please realize…You’re not alone.



15 Responses to “Hindsight, Regret & This Dye-Free Parent’s Learning Curve”
  1. Emily says:

    I can’t tell you how much of your story, is my story, and it keeps going. The mood swings and reactions……I need to look at annatto sensitivities and products that it is in. This might be true for my daughter too.

    THANK YOU!!! Keep up the wonderful work!

    • Indie Mama says:

      Hey Emily! Thanks for reading. It can be uncomfortable for adults to admit that they are acting crazy, and I’ve done lots of apologizing. These learning experiences that I’ve gone through have been so painful. I’m grateful for the knowledge though. I hope more and more parents can think about what they eat and what their kids eat, and shop for healthier alternatives. It can be a long, difficult process! Let me know how you’re doing!

  2. Jen says:

    Awesome post! I related to so much of it… Thanks to this blog I have learned I am not alone, and I need to not have regrets and only look to the future. I try not to beat myself up for not catching on to my son’s sensitivity sooner. I noticed the first time my son had an M&M too that there was a change but I didn’t make the connection. And his first lollypop. But it wasn’t enough to make me not ever let him have one again. So interesting…

    I try to look at our “smart” bodies as a huge blessing. Because of my son’s “smart” body, our whole family has had a revolution and we will be better in the long run for it.

    Now, we just got to get our whole country on board!

    Thank you, as always…

    • Indie Mama says:

      Hey Jen! THanks for characterizing it as our smart bodies…it’s such an empowering way to explain this issue to little kids. I see change is happening all around, and more and more parents are concerned about food dyes. We’ve got lots of work to do, but it’s looking better and better every single day!

  3. Allison says:

    My children don’t show reactions to food dyes and such (that I’ve noticed thus far), but I sure as heck don’t want to put this garbage into their bodies. But sometimes I forget WHY I want to steer clear of this, sometimes I ease up on my diligence, then I read your posts and am reminded of the reasons to fight the good fight. I grew up with terrible allergies to artificial flavors and artificial colors (was dehydrated and hospitalized before age one due to the allergies) although years of avoiding these foods and having allergy shots helped me grow out of it. No matter, though, I don’t want this stuff in my diet or my family’s diet. Thank you for continuing to open my eyes!

  4. Molly says:

    My 5 year old daughter has suffered from eczema for 3 years – we went to countless doctors, dermatologists and allergists only to be told “it’s just eczema!” We also noticed that her behavior was erratic and terrible when she was rashy – thinking that it might be because of always being itchy and uncomfortable – but she could barely sit still most of the time. This past winter her eczema rashes got so badly infected that she got MRSA (the antibiotic resistant staph infection). I had heard in passing that food dyes could be linked to eczema, but hadn’t made the connection fully until this past Valentine’s Day when she had gotten a snack size packet of M&Ms at her preschool. When she ate them, she immediately turned into a raging, tantrum-y lunatic. And then I pieced it together. We have been testing out being as dye free as possible, and what a difference in both her skin and her behavior. I felt so guilty for all those times I thought she was just being horrible and purposefully naughty, never realizing that perhaps she was incredibly sensitive to food dyes. She is starting to be more aware of this herself, and today at school a classmate had a birthday and brought cupcakes. She asked her teacher if the cupcakes had dyes in them, the teacher didn’t know, and then handed her an orange popsicle instead (!) Tonight she is head to to covered with a rash again – since we don’t know if it was a Popsicle or a fruit bar, but I’m pretty sure it was the former. I have no doubt in my mind that we have finally found the cause that no allergy test (skin or blood) could find, and what no doctor could figure out. Her story is too similar to so many other people’s story for it to be a fluke. Thank you for this blog and your information – it’s very helpful and comforting to know we aren’t alone.

  5. Stacey says:

    Thank you for continuing to share your story. It is so helpful to so many of us that are going through the same thing. My 6 year old daughter has food dye sensitivity, but I didn’t figure that out until this past fall. And it was only at the point when I was so emotionally exhausted from her behavior that I was ready to take her to a behavioral therapist that I finally made the food connection simply by doing online research myself. At first I thought it was processed foods and high fructose corn syrup/sugar just like you. Then, the more I became aware and was paying attention, I figured out the dye connection. We have eliminated artificial dyes at home completely, and I have been working with her teacher to eliminate it in the classroom for holiday celebrations etc. It is much like what others have written, I describe it like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. She goes from being a happy, cooperative, “normal” child to a grumpy, irritable, pissed off at the world, tantrum-prone mess.

    Thank you for this blog (and I just signed up to follow your FB page too).

  6. Milehimama says:

    This is also our story! My son was actually diagnosed bipolar at age 6- and after 6 months on antipsychotics, we’ve been managing his illness with- ZINC, a dye free, MSG free, BHT/BHA/TBHQ free, and artificial food dye free diet. Amazing. There are actually tests you can do – and zinc screening kits you can get on the internet- for zinc deficiency. You might look into pyroluria, and also be aware that copper acts against zinc (we use a copper free, food dye free multivitamin because of this.)

    Thanks for writing and helping to get the word out.

  7. Lorinne says:

    What a fantastic article! Thank you SO much for your courageous honesty. I can relate to those moments of irrational ranting at bedtime. (and the tremendous guilt afterward). I hadn’t considered that it could be diet related! (Duh!) I will definitely be taking a MUCH closer look at all the foods I consume. I have avoided any artificial colors/flavors (my mother did so when I was a child — a self-described “hippie” before her time, lol). But I have slacked off many times for “treats”, for him or for me. (M&M’s, Doritoes…) Thank you for your diligence, and for sharing all the trials and tribulations you have gone thorugh and learned from. <3

  8. Feingold_Momma says:

    Thanks for a fantastic article! We’ve been following the Feingold Program since July 2003, and so have been artificial color free since then. However, the comment about annatto and the reactions make me wonder if that is something we need to look at for our toddler. He’ll fly into such rages as I’ve never seen in a small child before. Screaming and yelling, hitting his head, pulling his hair hard, scratching at his face. I can’t access the Food Intolerance Network, or the page you linked, so I’ll have to do some research on this and see if it matches up. Again, thanks! 🙂

  9. countrydove says:

    Hmmm. Your article brought up a few “I wonders….” about our own behavior (mine included) in our home. I’ll have to do and read more of your research to try to find links in what we’re consuming to how we are acting/feeling. Thanks for having this page! 🙂

  10. Paula says:

    Just found your blog via the Feingold Family Pages….excellent! Our daughter had dye allergies as a child and still does at 26. We had our mistakes…one particularly bad “Candy Corn Incident” the whole family still talks about. oh and her friends’s Sweet Sixteen weekend at the shore when my daughter had a “Shirley Temple”–she’d never had one and didnt know about the cherry juice….everyone saw the sunrise because she went into hyper-mode and never shut up all night…..
    My husband has dye allergies that intensified after a skull fracture. HE has the Annatto sensitivity too. A Ritz cracker will give him twitching legs and hyper-ness for min. of 6 hours. A Saltine (no annatto) is just fine. Annatto is a tough one to watch out for–it’s in SO much. Keep up the fight–the day to day of it all can be overwhelming….stay strong!

  11. Nicole says:

    Thank you for your honesty! This post really just brought tears to my eyes because I so often feel all alone in the food dye battle. I cannot even express how elated I am to stumble upon this blog! My 4 year old has dye sensitivites that I still dont think I have completely figured out. Your candidness is admirable and you should be proud of yourself! Thank you!

  12. Nicole says:

    I have been a reader for awhile now and just want to thank you for sharing your families experience with all of this so that others may learn from it too. I know having a community of others to share with has been very helpful for my family and hope you know your efforts are appreciated.

  13. Nicole says:

    I have been a reader for awhile now and just want to thank you for sharing your family’s experience with all of this so that others may learn from it too. I know having a community of others to share with has been very helpful for my family and hope you know your efforts are appreciated.

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