Health and Development: Off Color / Could synthetic food dyes be affecting your child?
We all know it’s important to stimulate your newborn with bright colors; it’s good for brain growth and visual development. But somewhere along the line, that need for visual stimulation flowed over into the production of our food supply. Now, not only does food have to taste good, but it has to be as colorful as the mobile over your child’s crib.
As a visual-centric population, American consumers have been trained to anticipate products will be certain colors. Laundry detergent is blue. Baby lotion is pink. And the freshest, best tasting foods have deep color: a vivid red apple, a dark green stalk of broccoli, a bright orange carrot.
Over time, however, we’ve grown less and less of our own food and become dependent on others for our dietary needs. Foods are now heavily processed to make them last longer and allow them to be shipped to markets; chemicals are added to preserve tastes and dyes are mixed in to make foods more appealing.
We’re a culture so obsessed with how our food looks that, at one point, 700 synthetic colors were allowed in our food. Today, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that list has been whittled down to seven.
But is seven still too many? Colleyville mom Nicole Chalmers thinks so. Her son Max was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday and, since that day, Chalmers has become a self-proclaimed “huge researcher.” “Our pediatrician back then thought I was crazy,” she says. “But everything I read pointed to how diet is linked to behavior.”
By the time Max turned 4, his mother had gradually removed gluten and dairy from his diet. “When we started ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] therapy, we were instructed to give M&Ms as a reward for positive behavior,” Chalmers says. “But I’d been reading about how artificial dyes can affect behavior, so it seemed counterproductive to give him candy with dyes.”
Chalmers is not the only one alarmed.
Ever since Dr. Ben Feingold published his book, Why Your Child is Hyperactive, which linked Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to artificial food colors (AFC) and flavorings in the 1970s, an ongoing debate has raged, pitting science against parental instincts and setting off a firestorm of concern over the food we feed our children. Surely if it’s on the grocery shelf, it must be OK, right? Then why do parents who detect hyperactivity, an inability to focus, irritable behavior and sleep disturbances in their children see a marked improvement when they remove dyes from their diets?
‘Very little nutritional value’
Synthetic food dyes are made from the same petroleum that fuels our vehicles, and even the FDA is careful about how they’re presented. "Color additives are very safe when used properly," states Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, on fda.gov. She cautions, however, that “there is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance."
The FDA requires consumer product labeling to list the dyes used (some are known carcinogens), but companies aren’t required to indicate how much is in the product or warn that it could cause an adverse reaction.
Laura Stevens, researcher at the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue University, assessed the amount of synthetic dyes found in food, drinks and candies in a recent study. “The amounts were higher than we predicted,” she says, with the worst offenders being beverages. “We found most foods that contained dyes had very little nutritional value.”
Stevens urges parents to read labels … and be prepared to be shocked. “Two products raised my eyebrows: a strawberry milk with no strawberries and a lemon pudding with no lemon, only artificial flavors and colors,” she reveals. “Any dye with a number associated with it should raise a flag, because over the years, a series of numbered dyes have been taken off the market.”
Stevens says ideally U.S. manufacturers would use only natural dyes, if any, such as annatto and beet powder. “The time is long past due for the FDA to get synthetic dyes out of the food supply or for companies to do so voluntarily and promptly," Stevens asserts.
Chalmers agrees, adding, “Once you start looking at labels, it will blow your mind. I think, ‘Are you kidding me? Why would you possibly need more color in this?’”
‘You can’t take it out hit or miss’
Dr. Amber Brooks, founder of Whole Child Wellness in Dallas, warns parents that even though dyes are deemed “safe” doesn’t mean they are “healthful.” Frankly, dyes are an easy thing to take out of the equation, she notes.
Within her special needs patient population, she finds there is a tendency to see sensitivities to food additives and dyes. “Because, in most cases, their detoxification pathways are challenged,” Brooks explains. “They typically have inborn errors in metabolism that cause them to react in ways you don’t see in other kids.”
Among those kids who experience adverse reactions to dyes and additives, the range of behavior varies widely and can include an inability to sit still or wait their turn, impulsive issues, disruption and constant movement. “It runs the gamut from rude to wacky,” Brooks says. “Kids will often have trouble sleeping or have night disturbances.”
She cautions parents not to take a random approach to eliminating food dyes, however, because they don’t ‘just wear off.’ “It can keep them off balance for days,” Brooks says. “Kids have different detoxification systems and metabolism rates. You can’t take it out hit or miss.”
Chalmers says she and her husband, Greg, allow Max to have an occasional Gatorade at soccer with his teammates or a small snack when at a friend’s house. “I’ve taken cakes to parties for him, and it does make him feel isolated to a degree; but if I don’t, he’ll have less focus and be less responsive for the next few days,” she concedes.
Chalmers always packs Max’s school lunch, however, and she approaches his diet with a positive caveat. “I say, ‘These things are not good for your health.’ And he’ll say, ‘But they look so delicious,’” she shares. “So that’s hard at times.”
‘It was like a tornado had hit my office’
Dr. Danny Rafati, pediatric gastroenterologist with Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, believes parents are too quick to blame food additives for behavior changes. The spate of scientific studies conducted through the years offers no conclusive proof that food dyes cause hyperactivity in most kids, he claims. Although the FDA’s analysis of three decades worth of research suggests that some kids with ADHD may be particularly sensitive to them.
While parents can be a child’s best advocates, they’re the least likely to be unbiased observers of their child’s behavior and tend to over-report reactions as they’re “hyper-focused on it,” Rafati says. For instance, a child who eats a blue-frosted cupcake at a birthday party might be wound up and boisterous for hours after returning home. The parents might blame his behavior on the blue dye in the icing, when it could be attributed to the sugar he’s consumed or the excitement of spending time with his buddies.
Rafati also finds parents become so focused on one thing, they often fail to provide the proper nutrition for the child. “It’s difficult to control all the variables on your own and come away with useful information,” he says. Instead, he recommends finding a healthcare provider who can help navigate the steps and run the appropriate tests if needed.
For Max, that partner was Dr. Constantine A. Kotsanis, founder of the Kotsanis Institute in Grapevine. Chalmers found Kotsanis’ practice during her research and knew he advocated ‘clean food,’ which fell in line with how she was approaching Max’s diet.
Over the years, Kotsanis observed his patients’ adverse reactions to synthetic food dyes, particularly “the big guns” (red and yellow) and presented his findings to the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy. He concluded that they were detrimental to children’s immune systems and interfered with brain hormones and neural transmitters. “If you read a food label and see a number, don’t eat it,” he advises, particularly if you have allergies, immune dysfunctions or a mental disorder.
Kotsanis says one memorable patient comes to mind whenever he thinks of AFC. A mother called him on a Monday and said the school told her if she didn’t “fix her child,” he couldn’t come back. When she came for her appointment with her boy, “It was like a tornado had hit my office,” Kotsanis recalls. “Every time her son did something right, she gave him a piece of red candy as a reward.”
He told her to pitch the bag of candy and brace herself for a few days of hell. By the end of the week, he’d received two phone calls: one from the mom thanking him and one from the school asking what drug he had given the child to make him behave. “I never had to see the boy again and that’s all it took,” he insists.
Kotsanis believes nutrition plays an enormous role in a child’s life, beginning with his mother’s diet preconception and continuing through adulthood. He advises his patients’ families to keep three factors in mind: organic food, no sugar and clean water.
And if your child is not meeting milestones set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics, react sooner rather than later. He explains, “The brain develops in stages, so making good changes before age 3 is optimal, by age 5 is fantastic, by age 8 is good and by age 12 is still better than doing nothing at all.”
His hope is that parents will choose natural organic food versus commercial or processed food. When people complain about the cost of organic, Kotsanis is quick to remind them that doctor bills and medications are even more expensive and time-consuming.
‘He’s my own case study’
Brooks suggests parents feed their child a 100 percent, dye-free diet for 90 days. “It’s the best way to give it an honest go and see if you notice an improvement,” she says. If not, your child might be reacting to something else, in which case she suggests seeing a doctor for testing.
Rachel Barraco, registered dietitian nutritionist at Children’s Health in Dallas, says elimination diets to avoid AFC can be beneficial for children with ADHD or other behavioral challenges, and many parents have observed positive behavior changes when AFC-containing foods are limited or eliminated entirely.
Her concern is that children with behavioral disorders can already be prone to poor eating habits. “So it’s important to try eliminating one food at a time per week and closely monitoring a behavioral response, so you don’t eliminate something that doesn’t need to be,” Barraco suggests.
A good place to start? Sugary drinks, including sodas and sports drinks that provide little to no nutritional benefit. Barraco suggests keeping a cold pitcher of water with fresh fruit handy instead.
She also advises not singling out a particular sibling or family member. “The most successful families are those who make changes together,” Barraco says.
Chalmers keeps separate treat jars for Max and his brother, Lachlan, but as a family, they eat what Max eats. “My friends might think I’m a crazy granola mom and that’s OK,” she says. “I’ve got a bigger goal. I’m trying to treat Max’s autism at the root core. He’s my own case study.”
Now that Max is 12, Chalmers says her next challenge is getting him to make good choices on his own. “Once he goes off to college, my hope is he will understand why we do this,” she shares.
Published May 2015