Seeing Red: One Mother (A Medical Writer) Investigates Food Dyes
Written by Amy Kilgore, a medical writer and healthcare public relations specialist who has a daughter with extreme sensitivity to dyes, for AllergyKids
My daughter was two, and I was seeing red. A lot of red.
I wasn’t angry. I was horrified. I had just discovered that the rash my toddler would get after certain candies was not in fact caused by chocolate, that the hyperactivity was not from too much sugar, that her uncontrollable bouts of crying and angry behavior were not because I was doing a lousy job of being a mom.
My little girl Monica was reacting to food dyes. Most specifically, Red 40 and Yellow 5. I can’t recall which friend suggested it and what exact moment I realized it, but by the time she was two I was certain. I had (painfully) tested my theory by giving her things with red and yellow food dyes and logging the reactions. Yellow: rash, hyperactivity, trouble sleeping. Red: hyperactivity, followed by (really) mean behavior, followed by shaking and crying; trouble sleeping. It was exhausting and heartbreaking to witness her little body’s reaction when invaded by these dangerous and unnatural additives.
Even more frightening was the realization of how many foods contain dyes.
I’ll never forget one specific call from my mom. She was watching Monica, her firstborn grandbaby, for the day while I worked from home and caught up with life. I was putting clothes in the dryer when the phone rang. I could hear her concern in “Hi.” Followed by, “What has happened to our sweet girl?”
Mom explained how Monica had been behaving – not listening, running around wildly, screaming, crying. I told her that the day before had been a bit trying as well. But we were perplexed, because we were so very careful with keeping her diet dye-free and had been the only ones feeding her for days.
Then my mom, a registered nurse, gasped. “Omigosh. Her antibiotic is pink. You don’t think…?” I called the pharmacy. Yep, the liquid antibiotic we were giving Monica to treat an ear infection had Red 40. I had dosed her twice a day for four days with Red 40! Several calls to the pediatrician and pharmacy resulted in a prescription for an antibiotic without any artificial coloring, a note in Monica’s chart and pharmacy file, and a little girl who within a day was calm, cool and collected (albeit exhausted).
I needed to know more about food dyes, and Mom and I dove into researching how and why they could “flip the switch” in Monica and, I assumed, most children. The more I learned, the sadder I felt for our children. Not only are food dyes causing hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, aggressiveness, sleep problems, increased symptoms of autism and ADHD, among many others, but they are known carcinogens. They cause cancer.
Here’s some food for thought from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Back in 1985, the acting commissioner of the FDA said that Red 3, one of the lesser-used dyes, “has clearly been shown to induce cancer” and was “of greatest public health concern.” However, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block pressed the Department of Health and Human Services not to ban the dye, and he apparently prevailed—notwithstanding the Delaney Amendment that forbids the use of in foods of cancer-causing color additives. Each year about 200,000 pounds of Red 3 are poured into such foods as Betty Crocker’s Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra’s Kid Cuisine frozen meals. Since 1985 more than five million pounds of the dye have been used.
“Tests on lab animals of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer or suffered from serious flaws, said the consumer group. Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.
“In addition, according to the report, FDA tests show that the three most-widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are tainted with low levels of cancer-causing compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl in Yellow 5. However, the levels actually could be far higher, because in the 1990s the FDA and Health Canada found a hundred times as much benzidine in a bound form that is released in the colon, but not detected in the routine tests of purity conducted by the FDA.”
Monica’s diet is completely dye-free, as are those of her little brother and my sister’s three boys. Not all five kids react the same to dyes – two react more intensely – but we still see significant behavioral reactions if they accidentally ingest food dyes, especially Red 40 and Yellow 5.
Of course, maintaining dye-free diets becomes a great challenge once they hit school age and are not always under our watchful eyes. At the suggestion of my pediatrician, we list food dyes as an “allergy” on their medical forms. Listing as a “sensitivity” just didn’t garner the same attention and adherence to avoidance. Yet there are slip-ups, such as when a well-meaning teacher gives orange punch, saying it’s okay because it’s not red or yellow (sigh). Or when the treat handed out is a “safe” white cupcake with white frosting, yet the inside is “confetti” with pink and red candies.
A recent incident sent the same shock through me that I had felt when I started investigating Red 40 eight years ago. I was having lunch with Monica, now age nine, at Eat’n Park. As long as we ate plain burgers and fruit for a side, Eat’n Park was one of the few restaurants I had tested and actually deemed “safe.” As a general rule, we reserve dessert as an occasional treat. That day I didn’t see any reason why Monica couldn’t have a slice of pie while I enjoyed another cup of coffee.
We spent a long time looking over the pie menu. Lemon meringue? Nope, looked too yellow. The same with banana cream. Strawberry? Not a chance – way too red. Together we narrowed it down to apple or chocolate cream. She chose chocolate cream and was thoroughly enjoying it when I noticed the crust had a pink tint on the top where the chocolate cream was sitting, as did the white whipped cream topping where it touched the brown chocolate. I couldn’t imagine it had red dye (chocolate pie?!), but I strongly urged her not to eat any more. Much to her dismay, she stopped eating the pie about halfway through the slice.
We had been having such a fantastic day – she’d been in such a good mood. Fast forward about one hour post-pie. She’s sitting in my car in her grandparents’ driveway, screaming at me and refusing to get out of the car because she wants to go home to change clothes. Even forceful prodding from her dad didn’t work. Exasperated, chalking it up to pre-teen hormones, I take her to change her clothes. As I’m telling her how inappropriate her behavior is and asking what in the world is wrong, she’s so busy yelling and talking angry to me she doesn’t hear a word I say. She even got so mad at one point that she hit my seat.
Following these completely out-of-character temper tantrums and verbal lashings, she starts pacing and bouncing and can’t even stand in front of the closet long enough to focus on what clothes to change into. She can’t make even the simplest decisions and can’t stand still long enough even if she wanted to. Still not making the red dye connection (forgetting about the pie), I head to the couch to sit and ride it out.
Monica ends up on the couch next to me, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably and asking me to make whatever is happening to her stop. Squirming and itching and rocking and crying, “Just make it stop, mom!” Finally exhausted, she lays her head on my lap in exhaustion. The whole episode lasts about an hour.
I call my mom and share the whole incident with her. Mom asks what Monica ate, starting with the previous day. Needless to say, I had déjà vu when I got to the Eat’n Park meal (“Omigosh. The chocolate cream pie. You don’t think…?”). Sure enough, one call to Eat’n Park and a pie ingredient check proved it – the chocolate cream pie had Red 40.
It’s certainly a challenge to avoid these dyes and many of the food preservatives I now don’t let anywhere near our mouths. I have a significant number of food allergies and have become very well educated on eating “clean” (whole, natural, organic), so I’m sure it’s easier for me to stay focused on living this way. But we absolutely cannot continue to ingest these dyes, especially children. If we could eliminate these dyes from our foods and our bodies, I am completely convinced that cancer prevalence would lower as well as the occurrence of ADHD and autism, among other cognitive, behavioral and emotional disturbances. The world would seriously be a better, much healthier place.
Amy Kilgore is a medical writer and public relations specialist in Akron, Ohio, and mom to Monica and Chase. Living on a restricted diet for the past 15 years due to multiple food allergies, Amy is strongly dedicated to whole, natural and healthy eating as well as providing education and sharing experiences about the ill effects of processed food, additives and dyes.