There was some interest in a post about our family’s effort to remove chemical or synthetic food dyes from our diet. It is a large topic so I will do my best to break it down. I also have a section at the end on so called ‘natural flavoring’. This information is not for the faint of heart.
What are food dyes for?
Food dyes are used to make food look colorful or more appetizing, especially if it will be sitting on the shelf a long time thanks to chemical preservatives. Think about the effectiveness of color in cereal alone. Many cereals would not be half so appealing to children if they lacked bright colors. Food dyes can be natural (using berries for red and purple hues) or synthetic chemical creations. It is cheaper to color food with synthetic chemicals - which is why most companies in the U.S. still use synthetics.
What’s wrong with synthetic food dyes?
This has several answers. The first and most important is that synthetic dyes are all made from petroleum, which is what we use to fuel vehicles. This is not a food substance. Many synthetic dyes are KNOWN carcinogens. Carcinogens are cancer causing agents. There has been a large study done on food dyes that explains in more detail the problems with each specific dye color that you can download here.
While that is bad it is not what originally brought our family to consider eliminating synthetic dyes from our food. We only learned those details later. The reason we first removed synthetic food dyes is that many people react to them with hyperactivity and emotional control issues. While this concept is often under debate, we have seen it in action as I will explain in a moment.
Most often these hyperactivity and emotional control issues are seen in children. There is a simple explanation for that if you think about it. Children are more at risk because the concentration in their little bodies is greater than it would be if an adult consumed the same amount of dye-laden food.
The FDA is failing us, look at Europe.
Food dyes are actually given warning labels in other countries. The FDA ignores the proven risks of synthetic food dye and won’t give products so much as a warning label. Much of Europe has eliminated synthetic food dyes completely. Companies that sell products in the United States and Europe actually make naturally colored products (ex: use beets for reds/purples instead) for their European stores. A few examples: M&Ms, Pop Tarts, and all foods by the Great Britain arm of WalMart are naturally colored. The same companies continue to use synthetic food dyes in all their U.S. products and stores.
Our Story – Why we tried removing dyes
Having a large family there is usually quite a bit of energy in the house. Some of my children would probably be labeled hyperactive by the medical establishment. I’m okay with that, energy can be put to good use. However the real problem we faced centered around our third child, Emma. Last year at nearly seven years old she still had full blown tantrums.
It wasn’t pretty. Screaming, hitting, throwing things, out of control emotions. We couldn’t reason with her. If sent to her room to calm down the tantrum simply kept going for hours and escalated. She was out of control and it was heartbreaking to see because no matter what was tried she could not handle the emotions. It took hours to regain her equilibrium.
Now, please remember, at this point I already had seven children. I had been through tantrums with most of them, at younger ages. It was a matter of immaturity that each overcame in time, all except Emma. I had many tools to deal with tantrums and helping my child regain control of their emotions was always the goal. None of her siblings struggled to the extent Emma did or for as many years.
What Happened When We Removed the Dyes?
I would never believe it if I had not been there. We removed all synthetic food dyes and within two weeks Emma had gone from several uncontrollable tantrums a week to none at all. She could still get upset but finally was able to handle the emotions and calm herself down before it escalated into a major tantrum. She could be reasoned with.
Since that time we have experimented a bit with adding dyes back in to see if we could narrow down the ones she has the most trouble with. Her main triggers – red dyes and yellow dyes. How do we know? Within a day of reintroducing either into Emma’s diet we can see her emotional control deteriorate. If she has synthetic dye more than once in a day or two her tantrums return. Needless to say we no longer buy foods with synthetic food dye.
I challenge you to go into your pantry and refrigerator and look. You will be surprised at places synthetic dye sneaks in. For example cream cheese frosting is WHITE but has yellow food dye. All shelf-stable brands of pickles (not found in the refrigerated section) at my local stores have synthetic dye. Life cereal, which isn’t even colorful, has dye. Candy and most brands of chewing gum. Some crackers and chips. Check your yogurt, salad dressing, and cereals. Some jellies and jams. It’s even in toothpaste (how do you think they get red stripes or blue sparkles?), medicines, and mouthwash.
How do we handle synthetic dyes our children are given by others?
Because it is not life-threatening (like our oldest son’s egg allergy) we still allow our children to accept food and candy with dye from church classes, at parties, or from grandparents. We try to steer Emma to choices without dye when available - picking the chocolate mini Hershey bar over dye-coated M&Ms.
We limit our exposure when possible. After a Christmas party where our children came home with bags of candy we had some that day, then got rid of the rest. When we have had too many special treats given to the children we can always tell by the return of Emma’s tantrums.
While our other children do not seem to react in the extreme that Emma does to synthetic food dyes we still choose to eliminate it for everyone. There is a difference in the behavior of a few of the little boys, but it is subtle and more along the hyperactivity and impulse control area.
A Note About Natural Food Dyes and Natural Flavoring
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that not all ‘natural’ food dyes are something we would choose to consume if we realized what they were. A food labeled "All natural" in the U.S. doesn’t mean ‘in its natural state’. It may be extruded, processed, and dyed; but done so using processes and substances the FDA has approved as an acceptable ‘natural’ substance for labeling purposes. In case you were wondering, I’m not impressed by the FDA’s approved list. Let’s see if you are.
The natural food coloring called crimson lake, natural red #4, cochineal, or carmine are often made from a beetle - a Cochineal Insect. After killing thousands at a time, the dried insects are boiled to produce a liquid solution that can be turned to a dye using a variety of treatments.
Coal tar is listed as number 199 on the United Nations list of “dangerous goods”. The coloring Allura Red AC is derived from coal tar and is commonly found in red-colored candies, sodas and other sweets.
You know that shiny coating on candies like Skittles, or the sprinkles on cupcakes and ice cream sundaes? They get that glaze from the secretions of the female lac beetle. It is also known as shellac and used as a wood varnish. I’m not making this up.
“Natural flavors” on a label can be just as bad. For example the FDA has ruled that using beaver anal glands to make vanilla (and raspberry) flavoring is both legal and safe. Castoreum is the technical name but the FDA allows companies to simply lump it under the heading ‘natural flavors’. Companies do not even have to tell you it’s in there. It is also used in alcoholic beverages, baked goods, chewing gum, gelatins and jello, gravies, hard candy, meat products, non-alcoholic beverages, and soft candy.
FDA approved natural food additives include ambergris (sperm whale intestines) and civets, but just saying “natural flavors” is ok with the FDA. Manufacturers consider them ‘proprietary ingredients’. I actually checked the FDA’s website to see if these ingredients are really true in case you were wondering. They are all legal, approved as safe for human consumption by the FDA, and none have to be labeled as anything more than “natural flavors”.
Anyone else rethinking that garden and cooking everything from scratch??? Just thinking about what the FDA allows in our food makes me sick to my stomach.
I would love to hear what your thoughts are on the food we feed our families. Do you have guidelines in place for your family? How do you balance keeping everyone fed with feeding everyone wholesome, health promoting foods?