“Looks like food coloring isn’t the cause of the fits,” I told Jen of The Unprocessed Kitchen just a few days into Lent. “She’s just a 3-year-old girl…I had hoped we’d find a magic solution, but oh, well.”
I learned a lot reading Jen’s wonderful guest post about the hazards of artificial food dyes that helped me kick off the My Food is not a Number! challenge to avoid colorings in food, but I didn’t realize that I was making a hasty judgment in giving up on the theory so soon.
She surprised me saying glibly, “You know, it is a neurotoxin, so it can take a while to get artificial coloring out of your system. It took two weeks before we saw a change in my son, but when we did, it was like a switch had been thrown.”
Oh. Right. Those pesky neurotoxins.
It was rather jarring to hear a nasty word like “neurotoxins” thrown around so casually – but accurately! – about something that millions of children and adults, including my own family, consume on a daily basis.
I was happy to cling back onto the hope that maybe a full abstention from artificial food dyes would help us avoid half hour screaming jags from the resident waist-high drama queen.
Imagine my dismay when the experiment had the first “contamination” moment.
How Hard is it to Avoid Food Dyes?
Above are the natural food colorings I tested in frosting. I discovered that the beet powder on top there doesn’t hold its color after a few weeks – it turns brown.
I thought I’d share a little update on how our family has been faring so far (it’s about the halfway point for us), and I welcome any of you who tried the challenge for a day, a week, or longer to chime in on your experiences as well.
Has it been difficult?
Honestly, not at all when we’re at home. The only changes we had to make were so minor: avoid pickles (but I haven’t even had a meal that really called for them anyway), change our brand of tortilla chips (it was high time, especially when their packaging caught up to their contents and I realized they weren’t NEARLY as high quality/low ingredients as I thought, even if they are nixtimalized), and separate the colorful things out of the kids’ candy.
It’s kind of funny, once you get going, how many of the candy options have artificial colors vs. those that don’t. Paul (6yo) got pretty quick about figuring out how to sort into two piles: chocolate and Tootsie rolls on one side, just about everything else on the other!
Leah (3yo) would ask with each piece: “Is this good?” I realized we had to be careful about our language lest she think all the chocolate candies were actually good for her, so I kept repeating myself, “That candy still isn’t good, but it’s in the pile without artificial colors. It’s still dessert, junk food.”
Paul has had some food offered to him by friends that he couldn’t accept (although popsicles at 5:30 p.m. would get a “no” from the parents, anyway). We expected green frosted cupcakes the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and he nearly had a meltdown imagining having to say no to them. He got a special cookie (grain-free chocolate chip) in his lunch that he could trade for the cupcakes if they showed up – surprisingly, they didn’t, so the kid got a bonus cookie when he usually doesn’t get a sweet! I’m sure that part didn’t hurt his feelings too much, but he’s definitely had a struggle in social situations.
When we’re out, the biggest challenge is wondering whether we need ask about ingredients. Pizza sauce? Salsa? Burrito sauce? Could have red 40, right? Even vanilla ice cream could potentially have yellow no. 5 in it, and I wondered about movie popcorn “butter” when I wrote up that Lorax movie review.
We don’t go out to eat very often, especially during Lent for many reasons, but the kids have been out for lunch with their grandparents twice now, and I’m guessing both times were “oopses” on the artificial coloring.
I reminded Grandma of the importance of keeping the food dyes away from them and that we’re really hoping to see what happens over the long term with Leah, even quoting Jen about the two weeks thing.
I went through the freezer and give the “okay” sign on various ice creams and bars that my kids like. I checked out the cereals. (Yes, you’re right, I don’t love the food they eat at Grandma’s, but I have to roll with it and know that it’s only on occasion…and I always send a jar of raw milk so at least they’re getting some goodness with the junk for breakfast! )
However, when they took the kids out for lunch, Leah had a sundae. With strawberry topping. My heart fell.
In spite of the fact that my mother-in-law claimed the strawberries looked like “just fruit,” I can’t imagine that there wasn’t red food coloring in it. If I’ve learning anything from reading labels, it’s that food processing companies put food dye in the stupidest places, and often to make “just fruit” look more appealing. I was so disappointed, but I figured that at least it happened fairly early and we could start over.
Leah’s behavior most definitely worsened after a weekend at the grandparents’, but it always does. It’s impossible to isolate whether food is the cause, or lack of sleep, or a change in routine, or whatever.
This past weekend, just as we were reaching that two-week mark, the kids went to a play with the grandparents. I triple checked that they only had vanilla ice cream…but I completely forgot about the pickles on the hamburgers! That should have been such a tiny amount, though, right?
The Fallout (?)
At 1:45 a.m. the second night after that, she woke up wanting her blanket back on. Ten minutes later she said she thought she would throw up. Rushing her to the bathroom and raising my heart rate through the roof did nothing for the sense of calm and sleepiness that I prefer at 2 a.m.
It was pretty obvious that she wasn’t sick, as her demeanor was great, a little mischievous if anything. I saw her every 15 minutes for another hour for all sorts of wonderful 3-year-old reasons, each time wondering HOW IN THE WORLD SHE WAS SO AWAKE after getting to bed after 9:30 at the grandparents’ and at 9:00 the night before, with zero naps to help out.
It was like midday as far as her lucidity, the gleam in her eye as she realized she “won” again and got mom out of bed, and her perky little voice.
She was told sternly not to call out again unless she WAS throwing up. “But what if I have poo-poos? I can’t hold them in!” cried my suddenly weepy, whiny little girl. (Ahem. Manipulation at its finest.) Since she had already gone potty once without having a bowel movement, I told her she had better not call unless she was on the potty, pooping.
I was a little glad Jonathan woke up so I got off the hook, but I did feel sorry for my husband, who had to go wipe her twice after 3:00 a.m.!
In case I sound insensitive, she was NOT sick in the least. Not a sniffle, cough, throwing up or near throwing up, and no diarrhea. She didn’t even poop.
Why was she so awake?
To add insult to injury, the fits she threw the two days following the fateful pickles on the hamburger were intense, massive, and uncontrollable.
I suppose I should also add that this morning, four days later, she threw up. We were at the doctor’s last week for John’s well-checkup, so that and a million other reasons could have given her a bug, but it’s worth documenting for the sake of documentation. (She did have raw milk with breakfast, along with soaked granola and pancakes that we all have had the last few days…so yes, I definitely considered if it was something she ate, and it doesn’t make sense that it was.)
Now I could have just written, “She had a bout of night waking for the first time in a while,” instead of those detailed paragraphs, but I keep telling my husband that we need to document behavior post-grandparents’ house. I feel like someone is always either getting sick or losing control the day or two after they return from Grandma’s house, but since I don’t write it down, it could just be me looking for a scapegoat and wanting to blame food other than mine.
Now it’s documented. For the world to read. (Sorry, Leah. You should stop waking up at night for an hour and a half.)
After this, I’m definitely committed to keeping the colors out of her diet for the next three weeks, with no possible sneaky buggers getting in there. I will be in charge of all of her food! After that detoxification time, I’m so curious what will happen when she gets colors back. (Here is the next update two weeks later…)
I’m determined to try to isolate the impact of artificial food dyes from other potential problems like lack of sleep, intermittent fermented cod liver oil (we get lazier with that as the weather gets nicer), and other dietary changes. If that means she can’t have jelly beans right on Easter morning because she’s low on sleep, so be it. I’m not fooling around with this after the questions I’ve raised.
You know, I never would have thought to try omitting artificial colors from my child’s diet if not for this blog and all the reading and interacting with readers that I do. I didn’t see immediate impacts in my kids’ behavior after a candy dessert, so I didn’t think it affected us. Maybe it still doesn’t, but I’m getting “curiouser and curiouser!”
If you’d like some more reading on the subject before my next update to the “My Food is Not a Number!” challenge, here are a few posts from Spoonfed, where Christina does a great job talking about “raising kids to think about the food they eat:”
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you ever tried eliminating food dyes (or wondered if you should – or are after reading this post)?
As for me, John just achieved forward motion behind me, for real, so I’d better sign off!
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