The Impact of Synthetic Dyes on Children’s Behavior

Understanding the Connection between Artificial Dyes and Behavioral Issues

The phone call from daycare or school that fills you with dread. The uneasy feeling when your child’s teacher hands you another behavior note to sign. The exhaustion and confusion of trying everything to understand what’s going on with your child. You know deep down that something isn’t right – this isn’t just typical toddler behavior. If any of this sounds familiar, let me first offer my support. Secondly, let me introduce a potential solution: eliminating synthetic dyes.

Synthetic dyes, chemical additives derived from petroleum, are not naturally occurring and can be found in candy, chips, and colorful drinks. They are used to make food, drinks, soaps, medicine, and even toothpaste appear more vibrant and visually enticing. Despite being cost-effective, the use of dyes can have harmful effects. The most commonly used dyes in food products are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1.

Unveiling the Relationship between Artificial Dyes and Behavioral Patterns

Four years ago, my now seven-year-old son, Rex, was expelled from daycare due to aggressive behavior. He would hit other children, spit at teachers, and have uncontrollable meltdowns that sometimes required physical restraint for everyone’s safety. It was shocking back then because it wasn’t the Rex we know today. His behavior wasn’t consistent, leading us to attribute it to “typical toddler behavior” at the time. However, I had a feeling that something was off. Switching daycares resulted in a decrease in such episodes during his PreK years.

(In hindsight, I discovered that his previous daycare rewarded good behavior with candy and cookies, reintroducing dyes back into his system. In contrast, his new daycare and PreK did not offer such treats. Looking back, the behavior resurfaced sporadically, usually following class parties or holidays.)

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The summer between Rex’s PreK and Kindergarten years was an incredibly challenging period for me. Long story short, after immense anxiety, countless tears, and relentless worry, I discovered that Rex had an allergy to synthetic dyes. Although there is an ongoing debate about the existence of dye allergies due to the lack of a definitive test, I firmly believe that if a substance triggers a reaction, it qualifies as an allergy.

On June 22, 2020, I received a distressing phone call from summer camp, summoning me once again to pick up Rex. He had been hitting teachers and attempting to flee the premises. When I saw him, the expression on his face was nothing short of chaotic. Laughter and tears intertwined, dirt and tears streaked his face, and his eyes seemed vacant. I sat down and cried with him, desperately searching for answers. When I asked what was wrong, he replied, “I don’t know, my brain feels fuzzy.”

Deep down, my intuition told me that something was wrong. I turned to Google for answers and stumbled upon an article and a TED talk about the connection between red dye and behavior. Without hesitation, I reached out to a trusted Facebook mom group to ask about their experiences with red dye and its impact on behavior. Sixty responses later, all confirming the connection, I began clearing out my pantry. (As it turns out, Rex had been eating colored cereal every day as a snack at summer camp.)

Embracing a Dye-Free Lifestyle

Fast forward to today, and I have my incredible son back. Although the journey initially felt overwhelming, filled with ups and downs, it has become easier and more routine with each passing day. We have been completely dye-free for over two years, and there’s no going back. While removing dyes requires extra effort, it is entirely achievable. I made sure to provide the school and daycare with a doctor’s note. I also had conversations with the cafeteria staff at his school, who have been incredibly supportive in ensuring he avoids foods containing dyes. Every year, I communicate with his teachers and provide a “Rex Approved Snack Bag” stocked with dye-free candies and treats. I even share a list of dye-free snacks with other parents through group chats for sports teams. There have been occasions when I’ve left work just to get him a dye-free cupcake after a parent brings in birthday treats.

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Fortunately, Rex is now acutely aware of how he feels when he eats dyes, and he is old enough to read labels himself, advocating for his own well-being. There is a wide array of foods, beverages, and products available that are free from artificial dyes. Applauding establishments like Hook’d Up Bar and Grill, which eliminated synthetic dyes from their menu a few years ago, I’ve noticed an increasing number of companies moving in the same direction.

I have spoken to numerous parents about their journey to eliminate dyes from their children’s diets, and my most crucial advice is to commit to going completely dye-free for at least 30 days to assess whether dyes may be the root cause of behavioral issues. Avoid using phrases like “just this once” or “it was special for a birthday.” A cold turkey approach is necessary. Start by focusing on numbered dyes such as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1 (or any dye with a number following the words red, yellow, or blue). Scrutinize your food inventory, label products that contain dyes, and strictly limit your child’s consumption of such items. Additionally, review the contents of your medicine cabinet, including prescription drugs. Check your child’s toothpaste, mouthwash, soaps, and shampoos as well. Once you identify them, seek suitable dye-free replacements. I have found close dye-free alternatives for nearly every item.

The Value of Diligent Label Reading

My most valuable tip for adopting a dye-free lifestyle is to read every label, every time, and teach your child to do the same. Ingredient lists can change, and although you’ll become faster at deciphering the information, allow yourself a few hours during your first shopping trip. Leave your children at home to speed up the process. Remember that going completely organic isn’t a requirement. As a single parent supporting my two boys, I shop at Walmart and Crest. For parties, I visit Sprouts or Whole Foods to get a piece of cake or a cupcake (yes, we bring our own treats to birthday celebrations).

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Most of the time, Rex is content with abstaining from what other kids consume. At almost eight years old, he doesn’t remember anything different. However, he is still a child, and understandably, there are moments when he feels left out. To be honest, it has been quite a journey. But seeing my sweet, intelligent, humorous, inquisitive, and artistic child return has been more than worth it.

Surprising Sources of Hidden Dyes:

  • Marshmallows
  • Fortune cookies
  • Canned fruits
  • Vanilla cake mix
  • Vanilla icing
  • Movie popcorn
  • Syrup
  • Crescent rolls
  • Chips
  • Pickles
  • Ice cream
  • Yogurt
  • Pie crusts
  • Blueberry muffins
  • Soy sauces
  • Pudding
  • Medicine
  • Vitamins
  • Temporary tattoos
  • Playdoh
  • Markers/stamps
  • Clear hand soap

Dye-Free Snack Suggestions:

  • All types of Goldfish
  • Pirates Booty
  • Pretzels
  • Regular and white cheddar Cheeze Its
  • Plain potato chips
  • Pringles
  • White cheddar Cheeto puffs
  • Mott’s fruit snacks
  • Applesauce pouches
  • Veggie Straws
  • Regular and golden Oreos
  • Nilla Wafers
  • Plain and white cheddar popcorn
  • Tortilla chips
  • That’s It bars
  • Graham crackers
  • Scooby snacks
  • Teddy Grahams
  • All fruits and veggies
  • Non-candy coated chocolate
  • Cheese sticks
  • Capri Suns
  • Honest juice boxes
  • Arctic Cherry Gatorade
  • Body Armors (all flavors)

References:

  1. The Food Nerd. (2020). Four Incredibly Harmful Effects Artificial Dyes Have On Our Health.
  2. Dr. Rebecca Bevans (2016). The Effects of Artificial Food Dyes.
  3. The Dye Free Family Newsletter, “To Dye For: The Documentary.”

Author Image

Kay Robinson is the assistant vice president of student affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma. Engaged in Leadership OKC, Leadership Edmond, and having served on the board of Infant Crisis Services, Kay is an experienced individual in her field. She and her son, Rex, are a foster family and have currently welcomed their fifth placement. For any queries or further information, feel free to reach out to her at [email protected].

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