When Eliminating Sugar Is Not Enough – Tina’s Synthetic Food Coloring Story

I am stay at home mom to my 3-year-old son, Logan.  We live in Tampa, Florida and enjoy swimming, trips to the park, and spending my husband’s days off lost in the magic of Disney.

617The prologue to our story begins with growing up in a fast paced urban city.  It’s no NYC, but with fast food places on every corner and at least five McDonalds within a 15-minute drive of our house, it’s pretty easy to eat a lot of junk.  My husband and I ate like most people…lots of fast food on exhausting days (and they’re all exhausting) and lots of processed foods in pretty packages.  We’d go on kicks where we’d try to eat healthier and it would always unravel. Our son was two years old and could identify which places serve chicken nuggets and french fries.  Let me tell you, having a toddler pointing out just HOW MANY fast food places we passed on any given outing was a little unnerving.  So we decided to make some radical changes to our diet and our approach to food.

Logan has always been an active and curious child.  From the start he wasn’t content to sit and play quietly.  Some days his hyper play was happy and fun.  Other days his hyper play was mischievous and daring.  Some days he’d be friendly and joyful, while other days he was devious and mean.  Being first-time parents, we chalked it up to normal mood fluctuations and the ever changing puzzle that is child rearing.  But in the back of my mind, I knew something HAD to have been triggering the changes in his mood and behavior.

The one thing we did know that made him manic was frosting.  One bite of frosting had him bouncing off the walls and made bedtime extra difficult.  We figured it was due to the concentrated sugar and made sure to avoid giving him any.

The Halloween that he was two and a half years old opened our eyes.  About six months before Halloween, we cut processed and fast foods from our diet.  The night of Halloween we visited friends and family.  We were so busy running around that we’d missed dinner.  Everyone was busy feeding us chocolate and cake (no frosting for Logan), that we didn’t even realize we’d skipped dinner until we got home.  Logan was excited and a bit hyper from all the activity, but he was happy and didn’t have a crazy meltdown like he had the year before (when he’d gotten his first candy ever).  I couldn’t get over how much sugar he had eaten without going nuts.  

A couple of days later we were hanging out at home when he asked me for one of the fun sized bags of Skittles from his candy pail.  There was no ceremony or excitement surrounding the candy consumption.

I spent that day in quiet defeat.  Logan was out of control.  It was all I could do to keep him from killing himself or our pets.  While typically careful but adventurous, he was careless and almost demonic.  I tried to feed him healthy foods to outweigh the sugar.  No amount of water or healthy foods could calm him.  No amount of warnings or correction could get him to behave.  Five hours after he ate the Skittles, his uncle stopped by to store something in our garage.  Although he’s used to Logan’s hyper demeanor, he was alarmed by just how crazy he was.  It was a full NINE hours after the Skittles had been consumed before Logan calmed into his normal self.  Nine hours straight of mean-spirited hyperactivity.  No slowing down, no stopping, no rest, no nap.  I was in tears by the time my husband made it home for dinner.

Our sugar theory was failing us.  He’d had significantly more sugar surrounded by excitement on Halloween than he’d had on this quiet day at home.  Then it hit me.  Chocolate isn’t brightly colored like Skittles.  I dove head first into researching all I could on dyes.  Within a few minutes I was thoroughly convinced Logan had a dye sensitivity.  A couple of days later we were supposed to go to a birthday party for one of Logan’s cousins.  I called the bakery and ordered a single cupcake with dye free icing.  My husband and I braced ourselves as we handed him the cupcake slathered a mile high with frosting.  By the time he’d eaten half the frosting, the party was over.  We packed up the rest of his cupcake and said our goodbyes.  As much as I was hoping he’d nap after such a high stimulus day, I had my doubts.  He’d eaten far less frosting and not been able to sleep before.  Much to our surprise, he climbed into bed and promptly passed out.  When he woke up, he asked for the rest of his cupcake. He sat quietly and ate it.  We had a lovely evening as a happy, connected family.

I needed no more convincing.  Logan clearly had a dye sensitivity.  My husband agreed it was probably a possibility, and while he didn’t doubt me, he wasn’t convinced either.  Regardless, he supported my efforts to keep our family dye-free, especially after reading some of the research I’d done.  Days turned into weeks and Logan’s attitude and behavior was more level than we’d ever seen it.  Of course he was still a difficult toddler (hello Terrible Twos), but the Jekyll and Hyde routine subsided.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, we spent the day with a cranky, moody toddler sporting stitches on his forehead from a simple trip the night before.  All day he was out of sorts and SO CRANKY from what we imagined was a nasty headache.  When we were trying to get dinner on the table we were all sick of his grumps.  Trying to keep him occupied and hopefully slightly happier, I crammed mini marshmallows into his hand.  By the time we sat down to eat, he was no longer out of sorts, but out of his mind.  He climbed all over us and was downright malicious.  I mindlessly shoveled mashed potatoes into my mouth as I surveyed the table.  I mentally ran through recipes.  Finally my husband stormed away from the table and read the bag of marshmallows.  Blue Lake 1.  In my attempt to calm our son, I’d poisoned him.

Since then we’ve tried to keep our whole family dye-free.  My husband even noticed Cherry Pepsi and Fanta make him cranky (but Dr. Pepper or Sprite don’t).  A lot of people don’t believe us when we tell them what an impact dyes have had on our family.  I can’t say that I blame them.  I’m not sure I would have believed me a year ago.  I don’t know if we would have ever been able to identify what was terrorizing our family if we hadn’t cut out processed foods, thus making the dye/hyperactivity connection more obvious.  I hope that one day the FDA will take food dyes as seriously as other countries.  I hope that one day our nation’s children won’t have to be medicated to (mis)treat conditions created by the food they eat.

Tina has a great way with words, and has been very helpful to me in my blog work. I want to sincerely thank Tina for her generosity in sharing this story in order to help other families. Please leave your questions, high fives, and pats on the back for Tina in a comment below!


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3 Responses to “When Eliminating Sugar Is Not Enough – Tina’s Synthetic Food Coloring Story”
  1. Patty says:

    You’ve nailed it! Unless they live with a child who reacts, most people don’t get it. Sugar is not the trigger for so many kids. I, too, went through this (though nowhere near as reactive) with my daughter 26 years ago. Artificial dyes made her hyper – usually with a 6-8 hour delay when she was very young, which got shorter as she got older. When you are up at 1 a.m. with a hyperactive crawler who normally sleeps through the night, you analyze everything. It was the dyes (which we called wakey colours!); I fed her apple slices with sugar to test, and she had no problem. She did grow out of it by the time she was about 12. Don’t forget to watch out for benzoate preservatives too, and a couple of natural dyes (for us, carmine) can cause a similar reaction. Hopefully, once people in this country catch on, the FDA will act. Europe started changing in the late 80s. I’m amazed that the US is still not convinced that these dyes are a problem.

    • Tina says:

      As much as people have been relatively supportive, only the few who have seen him crazed or seen the “switch” happen, really understand. It’s tough, but I’m glad we live in an age where there are so many allergies. We’ve never had someone balk when we’ve asked about ingredients.

      We have tried to be very aware of other possible triggers. He has had only 1 reaction to something that had no dye in it, Boost Kid Essentials, and that was actually at his pediatrician’s office, while discussing his dye reaction. We have tried limiting preservatives but haven’t noticed a problem with reintroduction (though we do work to limit/exclude these products anyway). He also seems to be okay with annatto, which I know can trigger others who are sensitive. I hope his extreme reaction will go away with time, but I doubt he will ever not react since his dad can’t handle red dye…well, more so I can’t handle his dad with red dye! In a way, I’m kind of glad…I don’t want that stuff in his body, anyway.

      • Beth says:

        Wow I can so identify with this. My son, who is now 3.5, went through some crazy what I thought were terrible 2s and 3s, until a month long vacation where he ate more processed foods than ever before and made him crazier than ever before made me think he might have a dye sensitivity. So I took him off, he was better after 2 days I though, within 2 weeks he was a different kid, and within a month he felt like my angelic, sweet, happy little 8 month old. We just spent all day smiling at each other. Over Christmas he was given 2 cookies with super bright frosting, without my knowledge, and he switched overnight into a demon. It took 3 weeks for the effect to wear off. I think he is also sensitive to some preservatives, but also seems to be OK with annatto. I’m so happy for your son and your whole family that you figured this out. Way to go! I totally know what you mean, by the way, about people not really understanding unless they’ve seen the “switch”. My mom’s mind was blown when she saw it.

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