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Food Dye Sensitivity: One Family’s Story

Today I have the pleasure of sharing a guest blog post by Beth, a writer, mom, and friend. Here she shares her experience with ADHD and food dyes, something I thought you would be interested in reading. In Fearless Feeding, we discuss the ADHD Healthy Diet, one that addresses sensitivities and optimal nutrition for children with ADHD. Although not every child will be sensitive to food colorings, it is important to put this through your filter, especially if you are not seeing improvement in your child’s behavior. Read on, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this!

I watched with interest the Today Show segment featuring a mother who is campaigning to get food dyes out of candy. I admire her candor and that of her son, who has food dye sensitivity. While there may not be significant scientific evidence to connect behavior problems to food dyes, I certainly have some convincing anecdotal evidence from my own household.

My middle child in particular (now a delightful teenager) had many “meltdowns” when he was younger, and it took me years to figure out what was triggering his tantrums. In his case, food dyes and additives were part of the problem. Sports drinks, children’s antibiotics (the pink, sticky liquid medicine), and colorful cereals, among other foods, contributed to his unpredictable raging temper tantrums.

As a little background information, our family seems riddled with learning differences including dyslexia, slow processing speeds, and ADHD. The tie-in here is that ADHD has been linked with sensitivity to food dyes. Some might even argue that the dyes cause these disabilities. I don’t believe that, but I would agree that for some children, consuming food dye makes learning more difficult.

Our son also suffered from sensitivity integration disorder. In other words, he was more sensitive than most children to sensory input such as light, sound, height, touch, and feel. At the same time, he was the victim of chronic ear infections that required course after course of bright pink liquid antibiotics and eventually three sets of ear tubes and an adenoidectomy.

When his toddlerhood temper tantrums continued into pre-school and beyond, I spent a lot of time research what was going on with him. I was an experienced mother. He was my third child, but his behavior was puzzling.

Friends offered all kinds of suggestions. Gluten, lactose, and sugar were all identified as potential culprits. So was poor parenting.

I researched food allergies, but I never really thought they were contributing to the problem, in part because we don’t have any history of food allergies in the family. Then I came upon the Feingold Diet, which suggests that food dyes, preservatives, and other additives can cause reactions in some people. That theory made sense to me because the additives introduced unnatural chemicals into the body.

I removed as many dyes as I could from my son’s diet, without going completely fanatical. Certain vitamin pills, macaroni and cheese, fruit punch, popsicles, candy, and soda were all replaced. Who would have guessed that regular Eggo waffles contain food dye, but the buttermilk variety does not?

Even though the meltdowns often coincided with his ear infections, it took quite a while before I realized that the bright pink antibiotics were probably full of dye. When I casually mentioned to a nurse at the pediatrician’s office that I might fill the prescription at an independent pharmacy where they could mix it without dyes because I had heard that some children have sensitivities to them, she said, “Oh, yes. That’s true.” This was the first time I’d heard a health care professional recognize that there could be such a connection. Later, when our son moved to a school for children with learning differences, the educational professionals also encouraged a dye-free diet.

On a diet free of dyes, my son’s behavior improved. There wasn’t any scientific evidence. I didn’t even keep a very good log of his food intake, but I saw enough improvement that it was worth my while to eliminate his consumption of dyes. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it.

Some will ask, was it the sugar? As a consequence of cutting out dyes, I also cut out some sugar, but I was never convinced that sugar was the problem. I could substitute a dye-free root beer and a Hersey chocolate bar in place of a Gatorade and Airheads and still get improved behavior.

I believe that the preservatives and other additives, in addition to the dyes, irritated his nervous system. After cutting out dyes, I realized that consuming certain cold cereals with lots of additives, even cereals that weren’t pink or green, seemed to bring on behavior meltdowns. So we eliminated those too.

Did cutting out food dye solve all our family’s learning and behavior problems? No. But it certainly helped. Interestingly, it wasn’t until years later that our family’s learning differences were discovered, which just served to confirm my suspicion that some of my children were predisposed to being sensitive to dyes.

Ten years later, I still try not to buy foods with dyes, but I don’t forbid them. Most importantly, when the kids start to bounce off the walls after drinking Gatorade or eating Skittles, I understand why, and I know it will pass when they get back to a better diet.

Maybe my family’s experience has made me ultra-alert to unnatural food coloring. The first thing I thought when I saw a recent post here featuring an image of an adorable orange jack-o-lantern Halloween cake, was, “Oh no. That’s way too much food coloring.”

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