By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Food dyes have been a health concern for decades, one we seemingly live with, like air pollution or the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in paints and adhesives.

People have fretted over the possibility that these synthetic additives cause hyperactivity in children, or increase cancer risks for so long that we’ve become desensitized. We accept that many foods come with a dose of artificial color. It’s a small amount, and it seems that modern life requires it.

Ironically, it was after I bought our son some “old fashioned” Mountain Dew made with real sugar instead of the newer faux sweeteners that we uncovered his allergy to yellow food dye — and discovered that the ubiquitous Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 are notorious for causing itchy hive-like break outs, albeit among a small number of sensitive people.

The reaction was apparently caused by the pile on effect of multiple infusions of the offending substance. During his inadvertent yellow dye binge, he also ate a full large bag of cheddar Sun Chips, which contain yellow food dye despite their otherwise healthy profile (and no, this wasn’t his usual diet; it was his parents-out-of-town regimen).

Once we nailed this problem down, the welts and itchy patches were gone and quit recurring. But as we took inventory, we realized that we’d have to be vigilant about food dyes. The yellows and reds especially, are in so many foods, one must read the labels. You can guess that yellow food dye is universally used in yellow and orange colored candies. But did you know it’s also in macaroni and cheese? And even though lemonade mix makes a pale drink, it’s in there too (a reminder that we can make lemonade easily from scratch). It’s also in Gatorade mix, snack crackers and breakfast cereals.

Today , while on vacation, we stopped to get our requisite saltwater taffy, and realized just in the nick of time that the yellow, green and orange pieces probably got that way with artificial dyes. The very helpful owner at the Good Ship Lollipop shop brought out a sheet that matched the flavors with their colors, and their food dyes. This enabled us to choose candies that were without dye, or faintly colored with red dye (pink mint, red stripped cinnamon etc.). This felt silly, but was necessary to avoid an ingredient that the candy really doesn’t need.

The boy’s been doing a good job of watching what he eats these days. He’s learning the candies, snacks, breakfast foods and beverages that he needs to skip. But then he’s 15, not 6.

As allergies go, this one is more annoying than life-threatening. His bouts of skin rashes, and two episodes of lip-swelling, happened when he piled on the snacks. It started with a party and candy that included Lemonheads. The recurrences were the result of a series of misadventures with cheddar chips at a sleepover, and well, you get the picture.

Still, it has opened our eyes. He’s avoiding other food dyes such as the reds and the blues as much as possible, forgoing slushies and a few other beloved treats. I buy a lot of organic and less-processed foods, so we’ll dodge some of the insidious ways these dyes creep in — via hot dogs and Nutrigrain bars, for instance. Turns out that many of the products we buy because they’re made with whole grains or organic ingredients use no dyes, instead substituting natural colorings such as annatto for yellow and beet juice to create reds.

Our healthier brands of breakfast cereals, pastas, soups, snack bars and seasoning mixes all check out. And this was partly by accident; we were looking for less processed foods and we more or less got lucky that these food makers skipped the dyes. (Just as Europeans may now get lucky and soon eat dye-free foods because the EU will be requiring label warnings about food dyes.)

For years, I have been on alert about the blue food dye that drenches certain food items. It seemed beyond unnecessary and there were questions about dyes causing hyperactivity. So I steered the kids away puddings and drinks that come in electric blue. I told them when they were small that raspberries were not blue. It was my way of introducing them to this issue. I was onto something.

I just had the wrong color.

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