Food dyes

Imagine my shock when I learned that the red velvet cake often served at our family gatherings requires AN ENTIRE CONTAINER OF RED FOOD COLORING. Eep. Although I was never a huge fan of red velvet cake in the first place, I promptly added it to my “no thank you” list upon making this discovery.

Most people seem to intuitively know that very large doses of synthetic/artificial food coloring are a bit scary. What many people do not realize, however, is that even very small amounts of food dyes can affect the way we feel and behave. I have seen this countless times in my clinical practice. After eliminating and reintroducing foods that often cause sensitivity, many clients find that food additives and food dyes actually contribute to their symptoms.

In my practice, I have seen clear links between food additives/dyes and headache, skin issues and behavioral issues in some clients. Children seem particularly vulnerable when it comes to these dyes, and recent studies are suggesting links between food dyes and attention disorders. For whatever reason, “kid-friendly” is often synonymous with “unnaturally colored” when it comes to food. A few examples that pop into mind – Cheetos, Kool Aid, “fruity” cereals, yogurt, even vitamins meant for children take on an almost neon hue. This article from the Washington Post discusses some of the links between hyperactivity and food dyes.

My suggestions:
1) Think long and hard before offering your children (or yourself) food that is unnaturally colored, particularly if they – or you – experience any of the issues mentioned above. Yet again, eating whole foods that are unprocessed will (mostly) eliminate this issue. If something seems too bright to be true, it probably is.

2) Even small amounts of these dyes and additives can affect physiology and behavior. Some clients are sensitive to certain dyes but not others; if you do have a sensitivity, it is important to remove ALL foods containing the additive, even those with tiny amounts. Again, it is easier to eat whole foods with no additives whatsoever, as these dyes can pop up in the strangest places.

3) Teach children what food is supposed to look like. Blueberries are not electric blue. Grapes are not “hot” purple. Cheese is not neon orange. There is no reason why kids need to eat “kid” food – show them the way, parents! The book “My Two Year Old Eats Octopus” is a great read if you’re interested in this topic.


Thoughts? Add your comments here. 

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Camille Freeman, LDN

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and reproductive health. I mentor other practitioners who need help building and growing their practices, working with complicated clients and getting clinical hours. I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating. My pronouns are she/hers. 

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