Red dye allergies are real

Red dye (also known as FD&C Red 40) has been in the news over the years as researchers explore a possible link between food coloring and hyperactivity in children. While the FDA reviews research data to determine whether there is a link, the jury is still, decidedly, out. Food dye manufacturers are predictably pushing back against possible government bans or restrictions on artificial food colorings and the general public is split as to whether or not the government should meddle with some of the colorful foods we know and love.

While I don’t want to involve myself in the politics of all this, I do want to come out firmly in support of the many parents who believe that Red 40, and perhaps other artificial dyes, cause a reaction in their children. For what it’s worth, I believe you.

Avoiding Red 40 has been a way of life for my family since my sister was very young and my parents realized that the dye made her very ill every time she ingested it. It took a long time to make the connection between the symptoms and the culprit, and even longer to get an official diagnosis. Hyperactivity would seem a relatively minor side effect compared to the migraine headaches, vomiting and hives that she has contended with. It is now second nature for me to read food labels, and I am careful to serve up only red dye-free fare when my sister is visiting. I try to do so most of the time for my own family as well, even though we have no apparent sensitivities to food coloring.

Some foods were obviously out of the question, like red Jell-O, red or pink candies, dyed cake frosting, etc. But other times, Red 40 appeared on labels where we really wouldn’t expect it: certain hot dogs, barbecue sauce, some “natural” fruit juices, many items that weren’t even red in color. I don’t know of any home cooks who whip out little bottles of food coloring to make their homemade meals look more appealing. Why does a bottle of barbecue sauce contain Red 40 while a bottle full of bright red ketchup does not?  Though it’s easy to read labels when you’re cooking for yourself or your family, eating at someone else’s house, school, or a restaurant is something of a risk. Dye-containing foods are not always obvious.

Medicines are another problem. Fortunately some manufacturers are starting to market dye-free cough syrups and children’s pain relievers, but the selection is slim. Tiny red lettering on a pill is enough to make my sister sick–she needs to scrape it off before she can take the medicine. Granted I am not a pharmacist, chemist or doctor, but I don’t see any reason why the commonly prescribed amoxicillin and other medicines need to contain Red 40 in order to perform their function. Parents can choose not to serve artificially colored foods to their kids, but their options are limited when it comes to medication.

Many parents suspect that food dyes are causing reactions in their children, whether hyperactivity or more serious side effects. And many of those parents have to push for their doctors to explore the possibility of a dye allergy because the idea is too easily dismissed. I know several moms who believe that Red 40 makes their children hyperactive, and I believe them. If a tiny amount of artificial food coloring can cause such a strong reaction in my sister and others like her, then surely it isn’t beyond reason that it can cause milder problems for a wider swath of people.

Although I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of artificially colored treats over the years and will continue to do so occasionally, as soon as I saw my baby’s perfect little body I knew that I wanted to keep his diet as natural as possible. I hope that manufacturers will take the initiative in helping parents serve up healthier food for their families, seeking alternative food colorings or doing away with them altogether when possible. I hope that health officials and the public will be less dismissive of parents who see a possible link between artificial dyes and their children’s behavior. I hope that more parents will explore the ways in which diet impacts their children’s health and behavior. I think there’s still a lot that we don’t know.

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