Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Seeing Red

This is a picture of a Female Cochineal Insect:

For centuries, man has created red dyes from the crushed bodies of this bug. Cochineal Coloring or Carmine is present in a product when the label indicates "color added," E120, "Red #4" or "natural color," to name a few. According to the FDA, carmine is used in foods like ice cream, soda, fruit drinks, yogurt, strawberry milk, fake crab and lobster, maraschino cherries. Carmine is also used in lipstick, makeup base, eye shadow, eyeliners, nail polishes, and baby products.

The following video discusses how Carmine is produced and used:

Some people have mild allergies to this form of red food coloring. Earlier this year, Starbucks was in the news for their discontinuation of Carmine use in its product line.  Consumers were horrified to find out the red dye consisted of crushed up bugs.  

Though it seems gross, I much prefer my kids ingest the crushed up bugs than the popular/ubiquitous coloring known as FD&C Red Dye #40, also commonly called Red #40. The following picture is a five-pound bag of FD&C Red Dye #40:

The video below brings back memories of our oldest child at four, the age we discovered the link between FD&C Red Dye #40 and her specific behavioral / mood swings:

Toddlers and Treats:

Until she turned four, our daughter existed in the fun, colorful world of toddlerhood: During preschool and at play dates, she was routinely offered colorful, fun, child-friendly snacks, drinks, and goody bags,  At birthday parties, she enjoyed frosted/sprinkled cookies and cakes/cupcakes and left with goody bags overflowing with themed candy.  She learned the holidays by  trick-or-treating, creating gingerbread houses, exchanging Valentine's and hunting for Easter eggs.  We taught her to brush her teeth with children's toothpaste, started her on children's vitamins, and treated her constant ear infections by using children's antibiotics and pain relievers.  

Around the time she was four-and-a-half, she began getting daily time-outs at school and displaying really bad temper tantrum/scream-fits at home. Not all the time, but often enough to concern us. She was bright and strong-willed.  And, she was getting used to having a younger sibling around the house.  However, none of this could account for the behavior displayed at school.  During the Spring parent-teacher conference, her teacher gently suggested that she may be ADHD.  At four?!?! "Give me a break," I thought.  
Finally, after an uncontrollable tantrum at a neighborhood block party (during which she drank lots of red Kool-Aid), we decided we needed to consider the possibility that the teacher was right.

Figuring Things Out:

I surveyed friends, doctors, family members. I researched relentlessly online. I knew that our daughter was normally a very well-behaved kid. However, when she was not, look out. Could her behavioral issues actually be related to what she ate and drank? We were so careful. We bought mostly 'healthy,' all-natural foods, gave her daily multivitamins, and avoided fruit juice, known to be laden with sugar.

We embarked on an elimination diet  for two weeks.  This included clearing out the cupboards, donating/dumping food, and rethinking what food meant to us.  We went completely caesin-free, refined suga-free and dye-free.  Along the way, I learned that it is not easy to convince a four-year old that rice milk and carob-chip cookies are just like the 'old stuff.'  She still cringes when she sees the 'fake' macaroni and cheese at the stores. 

After about four days, I began to see a difference.  She was controlling her impulses better, not throwing tantrums at the end of play dates.  Best of all, her preschool teacher reported no time-outs.  None!  Her teacher told us she was a different child - "Whatever you are doing, keep doing it," her teacher said.

Once we reintroduced foods back into her diet, we discovered that a definite trigger was FD&C Red Dye #40.  This was, unfortunately dicovered at a friend's birthday party during which red jelly beans were prominantly featured.   Back was the uncontrollable child who could not settle down or leave the party willingly.  Wow.  What a revelation.  The behavior/mood swings were, indeed, related to dyes.

Even though we thought we were making safe, educated choices, the food, health/beauty products, medicines that we used on a regular basis were turning her into a 'crazy kid'! The multivitamin, the candy-themed rewards at school, the antibiotics used to treat illnesses: all were making her act out and causing more harm than good.    

Moving Forward:

We knew then that we could manage the madness. However, we also knew that it is near impossible to avoid  FD&C Red Dye #40  in today's society. Preschool and elementary school is overflowing with treats -  for birthdays, holidays, special  projects, even good behavior. 

Playgroup, camp, and sports all include colorful treats at age four and five. In school, candy is used as counters during a math lesson, as a go-to reward for behavior, or as part of the "healthy snack" closet.  And, while most public schools are anti-peanut and anti-dairy, none are anti-Red #40.     

As we progressed through elementary school, I employed some of the following modifications to avoid Red #40:
* Provided weekly supplies of organic, all-naural cookies for the teacher to use as a substitute during parties and lessons. 
* Packaged birthday treats with bright bags/ribbons and left the actual food dye-free. 
* Divided Halloween candy into chocolate-based (which we keep) and dye-laden sugar candy (which gets donated to others or tossed). 
* Provided pennies and stickers to the teacher with which to reward my daughter for academic/behavior successes.
* Alerted the pediatrician as soon as pink, bubble-gum flavored antibiotics were offered and asked for an alternate. 
* Purchased all-natural, organic vitamins and supplements, as well as store-brand pain reliever.
* Brought our own treats/drinks to play dates - with enough to offer to others.

My daughter is now twelve, and politely knows to say "No, thank-you" to red. Most of the time - she is still only twelve, after all. I still dread the social situations that occur around the holidays and the school functions during which the ubiquitious 'goodie table' tempts her with sweets. She usually chooses blue/yellow if given a choice of color, but cannot resist jelly beans or the occasional sprinkled cupcake. When she does have Red #40, it take a good two days for it to go through her system. In the meantime, she has trouble with focusing and controlling her impulses.  


This is not a life-threatening food allergy. It is simply a food intolerance. However, it is often undetected, misunderstood, and mistreated. Our pediatrician did not know about it. The school nurse did not know about it.  Most teachers do not know about it.
Hopefully, by sharing our story, another family out there who has experienced similar behavioral swings with their child will consider Red #40 as the culprit.

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