That’s The Way The Cupcake Crumbles – Guest Post by Steph Emerson
Today I’m so excited to introduce you to Steph, a mom with whom I can really relate. We both have dye-sensitive 7-year-old daughters. We shared a similar dietary philosophy, and our children had relatively drama-free toddler years, until food coloring changed everything. Plus, I share Steph’s secret outlook on her daughter’s dye sensitivity (read about that at the end). After reading Steph’s story, maybe you will, too. Be on the lookout for an interview with her daughter, coming soon!
I’m a thirty-three year old teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom to two fantastic kids and one adorable puppy, and wife to one wonderful husband. We live in a suburb of Sacramento, California. We love gardening, cooking, traveling, camping, kayaking, and spending as much time together doing nothing as we can!
Our beautiful daughter Tatum was born in June of 2005. Like all parents, we fell in love with her instantly and from the start we wanted the best for her. I did everything I could with the knowledge I had at the time to provide her with good nutrition and raise her in an environment that would stimulate her emotionally, physically, and cognitively. I devoted my days to her well-being.
Tatum’s toddler years were such a joy. She was bright, loving, and entertaining. But there were days, sometimes several in a row, when we were beside ourselves. Our beautiful, charming, sweet, petite little girl would become what we dubbed “The Hulk.” She would lash out in violent rages of anger: hitting, clawing, biting, kicking and spitting. The events that set her off were minor.
I recall one day when she was three I was getting Tatum and Mia, a little girl I babysat for, ready for ballet class. I put Mia’s sweater on before I put Tatum’s on – I can’t begin to express how much this would normally make no difference whatsoever to Tatum – and she became enraged! She physically attacked me and I had to restrain her. We did not make it to ballet class that day.
Such episodes were few and far between, but still we wondered, “Are we this bad at parenting that we should have a child who behaves this way?” None of our friends had experienced anything similar with their own children. We had never hit her or exposed Tatum to violence…where was this behavior coming from? Tatum was our first child and we had no understanding of how severe her behavior really was. Now that we’re more experienced parents, we realize that the “normal” we were living with was not “normal” by any means!
I had previously come across an article online linking food dyes to children’s behavior problems. I dismissed it at the time because I didn’t buy the kinds of foods that contain food dyes. But on Valentine’s Day when Tatum was three and a half years old, my sister-in-law visited and brought Tatum some red velvet cupcakes she had made. She ate one that afternoon and by the evening she was in another violent rage. That’s when the light bulb went on for me: It was the food dyes!
I began to connect all of the violent episodes she’d had to times she’d consumed food dyes. For the average American child, this might have been difficult as food dyes are so pervasive in our food supply. But I’d kept Tatum’s diet very clean, so I was able to think back over the last year and connect the violent episodes to dye exposures with clarity.
My first memory of her physically attacking me was when she was two and a half. I had given her red Tylenol and told her we were going to take it easy that day because she was sick. She hit me repeatedly and screamed angrily that she wasn’t sick. At the time I didn’t give it much thought. Later I realized that was the first hint of a problem.
The majority of my remaining memories are of times she’d been violent after my mother-in-law had given her M&Ms. My husband’s mother, like most grandmas, enjoyed spoiling Tatum, and M&Ms were one of her favorite ways to do so. She brought Tatum M&Ms at Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and her birthday. Every single time was followed by severe violence. In fact, the sweater-before-ballet-class incident happened after she’d eaten M&Ms.
After the saga of the red velvet cupcake, we immediately put a strict moratorium on all food dye consumption. For an entire month, Tatum did not ingest a morsel of food that contained dyes. Lo and behold, she was perfectly charming, peaceful, calm and lovely. She did not have one single violent episode that entire month.
Then, one day, she did. I was at a loss, and devastated because I thought we’d solved the mystery of Tatum’s violent rages. I didn’t want to be back at square one! I racked my brains: what could have happened? She’d spent the weekend with my parents celebrating my mom’s birthday. My mom knew we were not allowing Tatum to eat food dyes, but I called her anyway to find out what she’d eaten. She mentioned that they’d baked a cake from a box mix, and I asked her for the brand and the flavor. It was chocolate cake so my mom didn’t think to look in the ingredients for food dyes. I looked up the ingredients online and, sure enough, it contained food dyes!
So that was it, then. We knew that food dyes were the culprit. We educated ourselves on everything that dyes could possibly lurk in: medicine, toothpaste, pickles, marshmallows, white frosting, the polish at the dentist’s office, and even topical things like temporary tattoos and shampoo. But we didn’t want to be “those” parents who made their kid bring their own cake to birthday parties and didn’t allow her to have the same snacks the other kids were eating. So we decided that we would control Tatum’s diet as best as we could at home, and when she went to a birthday party we would at least be prepared for the behavior problems that were sure to follow.
That didn’t last long. I won’t go into details, but it took one slice of birthday cake smothered in green and blue frosting for us to realize we couldn’t live that way. So now we’re “those” parents. The ones who come to every birthday party armed with cupcakes from Whole Foods. The ones who add “artificial colors” as an allergy on the soccer team snack list. Our kid is the one whose birthday cake is decorated in dull, natural food dyes that cost twenty dollars for three tiny bottles.
Since becoming a strict no-food-dye family, there have been a few times that Tatum was exposed accidentally. Interestingly, exposure to food dyes no longer manifests itself strictly in violence and anger. These days, she has more of an emotional reaction to them. In kindergarten, her teacher gave her a single Smartie. Although usually very careful, Tatum ate the Smartie because it was lightly colored and she thought it would be okay. By the next morning I was at a loss as to why she was crying hysterically over where I parked the car when I dropped her off at school… until I talked to her and discovered what she’d eaten. ONE Smartie and the child couldn’t control her emotions for over twenty four hours.
Only twice in the past year has she been contaminated with dyes. The first time was last summer – she had sprinkles on her ice cream when we were at a wedding in Germany. She was already feeling insecure as a result of being the only one at the kid’s table who wasn’t speaking German. I didn’t want to make her feel worse so I let her eat the ice cream. The second time was a couple of months ago when I put a Girl Scout cookie in her lunch box. I didn’t check the ingredients (rookie mistake!) because it was a chocolate and peanut butter Tagalong and I didn’t think it would have dyes. It did.
Both of the exposures I just described resulted in two days of severe hyperactivity and lack of self control. It was simply exhausting – for me. And I gained quite a bit of perspective. For the first time I understood why so many children in our country are medicated: their parents are simply exhausted and they just don’t know what else to do. That’s how I would feel if I didn’t know food dyes were responsible for Tatum’s behavior problems.
I am certain that, if we ate the standard American diet, Tatum would have had an ADHD diagnosis under her belt by now. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever. When I told Tatum’s pediatrician about her reaction to dyes, his response was that there is no scientific evidence that food dyes cause behavior problems. But we don’t need “scientific evidence” in order for something to be true, do we?
The problem is that we have a “buy now, pay later” mentality in this country and no one is stopping to ask “Is this safe? Is this healthy?” All kinds of nasty things find their way into our food supply and most people don’t realize that, for the most part, these chemicals are not tested for safety!
Food dyes may be BAD for Tatum, but they’re not GOOD for anyone. We need to get them out of our food supply and out of our children’s bodies. Food dyes damage brains, even if we can’t see physical manifestations of their effects.
I have a confession: I am secretly THRILLED that Tatum can’t have food dyes. After all of the research I’ve done over the past three years on the subject, I know too much to ever feel comfortable with my children consuming them. We have a two and a half year old son, and he gets his own cupcakes at birthday parties, too. We don’t yet know if he reacts to dyes like his sister does, we’re not ready to find out, but I honestly won’t mind if he does.
Tatum is just finishing up her first grade year. She can’t remember a time when she was ever allowed to have food dyes, but she doesn’t like the attention that’s drawn to her for standing out from the crowd. It’s the worst for her at school, because that’s where she has the most eyes on her. She gets embarrassed when a classmate brings birthday cupcakes and her teacher pulls a popsicle out of the freezer for her. Despite her embarrassment, she insists that she wouldn’t eat food dyes even if she could. She knows they’re bad, she’s experienced the effect they have on her body, and she thinks they’re gross.
I’m with her.
Thanks again to Steph for sharing her experience, and her daughter’s upcoming interview! I love her attitude towards her daughter’s food sensitivity, and I simply cannot wait to see Tatum’s perspective on being a dye-free school age kid. Please leave Steph your questions in a comment below.