The dreaded phone call from daycare/school. The look the teacher gives you at pick up when you know you have yet another behavior note to sign. The exhaustion and confusion of doing everything you can think of, yet you can’t figure out what is going on with your child. Knowing deep down something is off — this isn’t typical toddler behavior. If you have experienced any of this, first, let me offer solidarity. Second, let me offer a possible solution.
Have you tried removing dyes? Dyes are synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals that are not naturally occurring and color obvious foods such as candy, chips and colorful drinks. Dyes are added to food, drinks, soaps, medicine and toothpaste (to name a few) to make them appear brighter and more colorful to attract the eye. Using dyes is cheaper but potentially very harmful. The most common dyes found in food are Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1.
Artificial dyes and behavior
Four years ago, my now 7-year-old son, Rex, was removed from his daycare for hitting other children, spitting on teachers, running down the halls screaming, pushing over bookcases and having such aggressive meltdowns, he had to be held down so he didn’t harm himself or anyone else. This happened at school and at home. For those who know us, especially now, you can’t imagine that behavior from Rex. It wasn’t happening every day, so it was chalked up to “typical toddler behavior.” But even then, I knew something wasn’t right. We switched daycares and the behaviors became fewer and farther between during PreK.
(Come to find out, at his first daycare they would give out candy and cookies as rewards for good behavior … putting the dye right back in his body. His new daycare didn’t give out treats like that, nor did PreK, so looking back, the behavior still showed up, but more sporadically, after a class party or holiday.)
The summer between Rex’s PreK and Kindergarten years was one of the hardest seasons of my life. Long story, and lots of tears, anxiety and worry short, I discovered Rex was allergic to synthetic dyes. There is debate on whether or not one can be allergic to dye, since there isn’t a test to prove it, but in my opinion, if it causes a reaction, it’s an allergy.
On June 22, 2020, I was called to summer camp to once again pick up Rex because he was hitting teachers and trying to run from the building. When he turned around to face me, I can only explain the look on his face as being close to manic. He was laughing and crying at the same time, dirt and tears streaked his face, and his eyes were blank. I sat down and started crying, too. I asked what was wrong and he said, “I don’t know, my brain is fuzzy.”
I knew in my gut something wasn’t right. I came home and started Googling. I came across an article and a TED talk about red dye. Immediately, I went to a trusted Facebook mom group and asked if anyone had heard of red dye and behavior. Sixty confirming responses later and I was clearing out my pantry. (Later, I found out he was eating a colored cereal every day as a snack at summer camp.)
Becoming a dye-free household
Fast forward to today, and I have my boy back. It was overwhelming in the beginning and we had some ups and downs, but it gets easier and more routine every day. We have been 100% dye free for more than two years and won’t go back. Removing dyes does take some extra steps, but it is doable. I have a doctor’s note on file at the school and daycare. I have met with the cafeteria staff at his school and they are amazing at making sure he doesn’t get foods with dye. I talk to his teachers every year and have a “Rex Approved Snack Bag” in his classroom with dye-free candy and treats. I send out a list of dye-free snacks in group chats for sports teams. I have left work on more than one occasion to get him a dye-free cupcake after a parent drops off birthday treats.
Luckily, Rex doesn’t like how he feels when he consumes dyes, and he is old enough to read labels, so he is also his own self-advocate. There are many foods, drinks and products out there without dye. Shout out to places like Dunkin Donuts that removed synthetic dyes from their menu a couple years ago. And more are heading in that direction.
I have talked to a lot of parents about how to start removing dyes, and my biggest advice is you have to go 100% for at least 30 days to see if dyes could be the root. No, “just this once” or “it was special for a birthday.” You really have to go cold turkey. The easiest thing to do is start with numbered dyes: Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1 (or any number after the words red, yellow, blue). Go through your food, mark what has dyes and don’t let your child eat it. Go through your medicine cabinet, including prescriptions. Check your child’s toothpaste, mouthwash, soaps and shampoos. Then, start looking for replacements; there are very few items where I haven’t been able to find a close replacement.
The best tip I can give you is to read every label, every time, and teach your child how to do it as well. Ingredients change and while you will get faster at reading labels, the first time you go shopping, leave the kids at home and give yourself a couple of hours. You don’t have to buy all organic either. I’m a 100% solo parent of two boys, which means one income. I shop at Walmart and Crest. For parties, I go to Sprouts or Whole Foods to get a piece of cake or cupcake. (Yes, we bring our own cake to birthday parties.)
The vast majority of the time, Rex is OK with not getting what other kids eat and drink. He is almost 8 now and doesn’t remember anything different. But he is still a kid, so he has his moments. It’s been a journey, for sure. But having my sweet, smart, funny, curious, artistic, child back has been worth it.
Surprising places to find dyes:
- Fortune cookies
- Canned fruits
- Vanilla cake mix
- Vanilla icing
- Movie popcorn
- Crescent rolls
- Ice cream
- Pie crusts
- Blueberry muffins
- Soy sauces
- Temporary tattoos
- Clear hand soap
- All types of Goldfish
- Pirates Booty
- Regular and white cheddar Cheeze Its
- Plain potato chips
- 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)
- The Food Nerd. (2020). Four Incredibly Harmful Effects Artificial Dyes Have On Our Health
- Dr. Rebecca Bevans (2016). The Effects of Artificial Food Dyes
- The Dye Free Family Newsletter, “To Dye For: The Documentary”
Kay Robinson is the assistant vice president of student affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma. She has been active in Leadership OKC, Leadership Edmond, and served on the board of Infant Crisis Services. Kay and her son, Rex, are a foster family and currently have their fifth placement. She can be contacted at email@example.com.