What You Need to Know about How Food Dyes and Behavior Are Connected

Brightly colored cake pops.

I’m not sure if it’s my over-tired postpartum brain, or simply the fact that as I get older I’ve stopped caring what people think – but after last month’s post about living the way God intended I’m back with another blunt post about how the way we feed our kids needs to change.

Today I want to discuss the harmful effects of food dyes – specifically the connection between food dyes and behavior. And why the 80/20 rule does NOT apply here.

When my oldest (now ten) was little I fed her the way most Americans feed their kids. We started with baby cereal. She got lots of those weird yogurt melt things and American cheese. And of course, she enjoyed brightly colored food. Blue Moon and Superman ice cream were both favorites. For her second birthday, I made her a rainbow cake. So colorful.

It was cute, but it sure makes me cringe now.

Dora 2nd birthday cake with rainbow ice cream - food dyes, especially red dyes in food, have been linked to problematic behavior issues in children.

But when she turned five we made a big decision. No more food dyes. None whatsoever. She had been struggling with focus and attention for a long time. And we noticed a huge improvement with that one decision.

It’s not just us. I have heard from so many other parents that removing food dyes or even just Red 40 has resulted in a dramatic change in their child’s behavior.

We have an epidemic in our country. So many kids struggle with attention, focus, behavior, autism, and other neurological disorders. The number of kids on prescription drugs has sky-rocketed. And eliminating food dyes could be an important step in improving these statistics.

It’s time we do something about this!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Madiha Saeed, M.D., a board-certified family physician and best-selling author of The Holistic Rx: Your Guide to Healing Chronic Inflammation and Disease. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

What Are Food Dyes?

Let’s start by digging into the facts. Which, oddly enough, are hard to find! Food dye, or artificial food coloring, has nothing to do with food at all.

Artificial food dyes are synthetic colors made from propylparaben, propylene glycol, and petroleum! Yes, parabens and petroleum. Some dyes are even said to be carcinogens – cancer-causing substances.

hard candy and kids playing - food dyes, especially red dye in food, has been linked to problematic behavior in children

That statement alone is enough for me to say NO to food dye. But the FDA claims they are safe, so many people turn a blind eye.

Why Put Dye in Food?

Plain and simple, food dyes are used because people like food with bright colors! And we like the color to match the flavor. If a drink is strawberry flavored, we expect it to be red. Just the other day at church my husband had a cookie with green cream. Of course, it HAS to be green – it’s mint. Why can’t something mint flavored stay white?

If you live outside of the US, you might not have so much trouble with colored foods. Food manufacturers create different products for different countries to abide by laws.

For generations, Kraft Macaroni and cheese in the US contained food dyes that you didn’t see in their European products. That is because Europe has much higher standards when it comes to food additives. Clearly, the products can be made differently. But since it is allowed by the FDA, the US still gets the cheaper junk food.

It wasn’t until a blog brought this issue to light and consumers pushed back that Kraft announced they would be removing these dyes from products sold in the US. 

How Are Food Dyes and Behavior Connected?

Close friends and family know that we do not allow any food dyes in our food. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that they understand why.

Once when we went out to eat my kids’ food came with a pickle. I mentioned to them not to eat the pickle…because it has food coloring (side note – why do people like yellow pickles?!).

My kids thought nothing of it and avoided the pickles. But someone with us (a doctor!) asked, “Is one time really that big of a deal?

In my mind, absolutely!

You see, parabens and propylene glycol are toxic. Parabens are known endocrine disruptors and propylene glycol toxicity has negative effects throughout the entire body, including the brain. Toxic chemicals that affect the brain are called neurotoxins.

Since I have children with ADHD and sensory processing disorder, I try my best to protect their brains. Any amount of neurotoxins have an impact. Not just for kids already struggling, but for any child.

Related: Foods Causing Depression

Any time you mess with brain function you are going to see the effects in a child’s behavior.

Whether that is hyperactivity, moodiness, depression, anxiety, OCD, focus issues, inattentiveness…the list goes on. Even picky eating can be attributed to food dyes.

I know the FDA likes to claim there isn’t enough scientific evidence to say food dyes are bad and that they cause behavior problems. But it seems like simple logic to me. Especially since kids are consuming such large quantities of food dyes these days.

It’s not just a sucker here or there!

For some kids, artificial colors are in almost every food they consume since so much of it is processed. Let’s be honest, how many kids eat boxed mac ‘n’ cheese multiple times a week?

Yep, food coloring! You can avoid it with this super simple homemade version for the Instant Pot!

Dr. Suess birthday cake with bright blue frosting

And how many kids start every single day with food dyes in the form of nutritionally void colorful cereal? Even oranges and potatoes are colored these days!

In my opinion food dyes should never be consumed and they should not be allowed in food. And this is coming from someone that has been decorating fun cakes for years!

Food Dyes Are Not the Only Problem

Sadly, food dyes are just one of the factors when it comes to behavior. You have to be a thorough label reader. Sodium benzoate is a preservative found in many foods that also impacts neurological function (source). It behaves similarly to food dye in terms of its impact on a child’s brain.

Then there is the sneaky “natural flavor.” I shared here what that means and why you should also avoid it. It’s kind of a loophole food manufacturers get to add whatever they want without being required to tell you!

Sadly many natural and even organic products contain natural flavor. Unless you call the company, you won’t know what it is, and even then you might not get a straight answer.

Some parents find inflammatory foods like gluten and dairy can also have a negative impact on focus and behavior. My kids have been gluten-free for five years now due to its neurological impact.

homemade chocolate peanut butter cups

Behavior and attentiveness are also related to sitting in school all day, lack of movement, too much screen time, processed food, and overall inflammation.

How to Avoid Food Dyes?

As Halloween and other holidays approach and the never-ending school parties are underway, it’s time to do something about this! Make a commitment to be completely dye free.

Don’t think of it as taking something away from your child. Think of it as giving them an amazing gift! The gift of better health, of feeling good and of thinking more clearly.

I made this decision when my daughter was five. And even at that young age she could feel the difference and thanked me for it.

It never stopped us from participating in trick-or-treating. My kids enjoy the fun of dressing up and collecting the candy. At home, they get to pick a couple pieces of chocolate and then either trash or donate all the fruity colored candies.

We also work together in the kitchen to make a special, real food treat like pumpkin filled chocolates, salted honey chocolates or gluten-free divine chocolate cake.

Cutting food dyes is a great first step in helping your child feel better and perform better in school.

If you want to keep the momentum going eliminate processed foods, don’t over schedule, allow for plenty of free play time outside and some structured movement like yoga (we LOVE doing Cosmic Kids yoga together), limit screens and see if eliminating gluten and/or dairy makes a difference.

Oddly enough it seems so many parents are willing to try cutting foods like gluten and dairy (real, whole foods) but resist giving up food dyes! Always start with getting the chemicals out.

As parents, we need to make a decision and take a stand. Food dyes have no place in our children’s food or in their bodies! Many other countries don’t allow it. We should not allow it here in the US.

Fresh fruit (watermelon, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and a nectarine) next to fruit smoothies. Red dyes in food aren't needed to make these foods look appealing and delicious!

If you have older children, include them in the decision. They can learn firsthand how what they put in their bodies relates to how they feel.

God created real food with vibrant colors to nourish our bodies. There is no need to add chemicals to your food to make them colorful.

I recently read a devotion by Pastor Rick Warren where he said, “God wants you to respect your body and protect it. Why? Because God created it, Jesus paid for it, and the Holy Spirit lives in it.”

This includes not putting unnatural substances in your body or your child’s body. Take care of God’s holy temple.

Knowing what food dyes are made of, are you willing to keep your family dye free? Have you gone dye free and noticed an impact on your child’s behavior?

Resources to Help You Substitute for the Artificially Colored Foods You Cut:

6 thoughts on “What You Need to Know about How Food Dyes and Behavior Are Connected”

  1. I am 42yrs and I have struggled with foods that affect my state of mind. Mainly Chinese or any food with MSG or seasonings Is what I have narrowed it down to so I avoid eating almost anywhere. The thing that is crazy is my wife can eat those foods with no adverse effect me on the other hand, I will get what I believe to depression or something I can’t even stand myself it most cause a chemical imbalance or something.. as soon as I start feeling it coming on what I do is drink turmeric tea, gummies and lots of water to try and get over it faster. I notice our middle child is also sensitive to it like me. Is there a study are something I really hate how it makes me feel and I would like help if there such a thing. Thanks

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      That sounds very difficult to manage! There’s a chart in this study that shows some other foods that can cause a cross-reaction if you’re sensitive or allergic to MSG: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5938543/ Perhaps that can help you avoid it entirely and avoid reactions. I hope you’re able to find more answers, MSG is a tricky allergy/sensitivity.

  2. My little girl is sensitive to Yellow #5 & Yellow #6. She also does not handle MSG and a few other preservatives very well. I figured this out when she was very young, but others refuse to believe this is a problem. Wednesday night AWANA Club meeting where the worst. Ever snack time someone would give her Cheetos or Cheese Puffs of some sort. Not only do these have Yellow #5, but are not even very close to being an actual food! She would get all crazy and run around the church screaming!
    This past summer my mother in law, who sees a natural healer and is very against anything artificial, gave her all kinds of pop tarts and other garbage. I couldn’t understand why she would give her these thing when she herself wouldn’t eat them.

    1. Hi Amy! It’s great to have a goal of cutting out dyes…I would begin with the baby step of awareness. Just start reading labels and look for those numbers that signify food coloring. Then start considering what products your kids eat MOST that include it, and try to cut down (and eventually out) on those. There are almost always alternatives – plain yogurt or vanilla with fruit instead of Gogurt, chocolate candy instead of brightly colored stuff, ALDI pickles instead of other brands…and many brands are releasing products colored with beet juice and turmeric and such, huge improvement!

      Hope that helps! 🙂 Katie

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