A Naturally Colorful Life

Posted by on Jan 30, 2011 | 8 comments

A Naturally Colorful Life

We are a dye-free family.  Yes, I am one of “those” moms.  I’m the mom who won’t let her kid have Kool-Aid at the party.  I’m the mom who has to take every snack innocently offered at the playground and inspect it with a scientific microscope first.  I’m the mom who will not, under any circumstances, make an exception “just this once.”

Before you write me off as obnoxious and over-protective, let me tell you my story.  At the tender age of three, I became, as my father likes to tell it, a “nightmare.”  According to my mother, I was given some candy by a well-meaning relative and had somewhat of a reaction.  And by reaction, I mean a full-on personality change.  I was what they used to call “hyper.”    The change was so marked that my mother took me to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with “hyperkinesis,” the early 1970’s version of ADHD.

I don’t know exactly how it all went down, but someone had the wherewithal to realize it was the colors in the candy (red, specifically) that were causing my erratic behavior. My mother tended toward the natural side of things, and she discovered the work of Dr. Benjamin Feingold, and his book, The Feingold Diet.   Dr. Feingold hypothesized that artificial colors, artificial flavors and additives (like BHA, BHT and salicylates) were major contributors to childhood hyperactivity.   At the age of six, my mother attempted to put me on The Feingold Diet.

I was all for it, in theory.  I loved the attention, the “special” foods and the prizes she dangled in front of me as inspiration to stay on the diet for any length of time.  Looking back, I think we were doomed to fail.  By the time she implemented the diet in force I was already addicted to candy.  To be fair, there was no way the “healthy-tasting” alternatives were ever going to win over Fruity Pebbles and grape Bubble Yum.  There was not the bountiful array of alternatives we have today, and seriously, carob is no substitute for chocolate.  I was a lost cause, and my childhood was often a haze of erratic, candy-fueled behaviors.

I have known my entire life that consuming artificial ingredients is “bad” for me, but it took puberty to make me quit them completely.  Sure, candy and sodas made me moody and unpredictable, but that was mostly inconvenient for those around me, so I didn’t really care.  I realize now I was no more able to control my chemical consumption any more than an addict can control their need for drugs.  I needed a massive intervention, and thankfully, one came naturally.  Around the age of seventeen my beloved red sodas and purple gum and rainbow-hued candies turned on me.

As a child and young teen, the chemicals jacked me up.  They wired me for sound.  I couldn’t really focus or function to the best of my abilities, but I wasn’t calling the shots.  I remember vividly the day six little gumballs came in the mail, promising a wonderful new world without sugar.  Those gumballs were my first taste of aspartame, marketed at the time as Nutrasweet.  The reaction I had to aspartame was essentially everything I’d experienced before, turned up to eleven.

Then, something happened.  I’m guessing my hormones changed, and so did my body’s reaction to the junk I’d been feeding it.  Instead of feeling awesome when I had a Hawaiian Punch at school in the morning, I felt ill.  My tongue felt thick and burned, I felt lightheaded and sick to my stomach.   I had to make a massive change in the way I was eating, and I had to do it quickly.

Fast forward to today.  I have lead a mostly all-natural life for the last 24 years.  In that time I’ve watched our society’s attitude toward food change drastically.  In the beginning if I wanted something other than fruit juice or water to drink, my only choice was Snapple.  All-natural hard candies were next to impossible to find,  except the awful ginger candy at the health food store (all apologies to those who love ginger candy – I just can’t do it).  Nowadays you can find a natural alternative to almost anything you’re craving, from soda to candy to snack cakes.

I’ve watched the food supply get overrun by chemicals, and not just colors, flavors and additives.  Now we have, in addition to aspartame, a whole host of imitation sweeteners, MSG, growth hormones in meat and dairy products, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCs*) pushing natural ingredients to the wayside.   To make matters worse, most HFCs (at least in the USA) is made from genetically-modified (GMO) corn (there may not be a lot of research around GMO food yet, but I can’t see how messing with the DNA code of a plant to produce a sort of Frankenfood can be good in the long run).  Think I’m wrong?  Take a walk through your neighborhood conventional grocery store and pick something off the shelf.  Anything.  I’ll bet you it contains HFCs.  Bread.  Deli turkey.  Tomato sauce.  Cereal.  It’s pretty hard to regulate your sugar intake when there are added sugars in every single item in your shopping cart.  The purpose of HFCs is supposedly to substitute for sugar, but in reality it is used most often in addition to other sugars, and the more sugar you eat, the more you want to eat.  Pretty handy for the manufacturers.

The biggest secret about artificial colors especially is the ingredients used to make them.  Food dyes approved for mass usage commonly contain trace amounts of lead, azo and tartrazine (coal tar derivatives), aluminum, and many other ingredients that are potential carcinogens and asthmatic triggers.

Sure, in the last few years “all-natural” has become the fashionable thing to do.  However, unless you shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or Wild Oats or Sevananda or another store that only carries “real” natural and/or organic foods, you can’t be certain you’re actually getting a natural product.  Case in point – on a recent trip to Costco, I looked at Dempster’s Ancient Grains bread, chock full of whole grains and certain to be the real deal.  Nope.  Every Dempster’s product contains HFCs.  In fact, it was only in the last few years that Oro brands, one of the staples of mass-produced “natural” breads, eliminated HFCs from their ingredient lists. My point is don’t assume anything, and read everything.

I have spent my life reading labels.  I read every single label on every single food item I buy.  I used to spend hours grocery shopping.  I am now a one-woman resource on food ingredients, a crown I am proud to wear.

I have always said that when I had children, they would not eat artificial foods at all.   Everyone has things they will and won’t do as parents, and much of it is fantasy (how many of us swore *we* wouldn’t be the ones with the screaming child in the restaurant?)  Well, I kind of knew better on that front, but I had visions of my own.  Call me crazy, but I just don’t think children need blue ketchup or green yogurt or cereal with candy in it, and I was determined to keep those things out of our home.

The fantasy I have for my children is that they will know the difference between junk and real food.  It’s a long shot, but I’ve been working really hard for the last five years to make it happen.  We are fortunate that the first years of our young family were spent in Southern California, where eating naturally is the norm, and Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are on every corner.  We easily created habits for a lifetime that can persist even when we’re in less “food friendly” regions.

I was determined to create an all-natural family long before I knew my first born son had autism.  Before I knew how critical my choice would actually be for his well-being.  I gave him the best shot at “normalcy” without even knowing it (and that’s just my opinion – I mean no offense to anyone who has fed their child conventional foods).

There has been a lot of research lately about artificial ingredients and how they affect behavior in children, but I can tell you I’ve witnessed it firsthand.  I know exactly when Jack has had something “bad.”  He had a half of a red cookie in preschool once and he tantrumed the whole afternoon after throwing a Sybil-like fit.  On Halloween this year he had a cupcake with an orange candy on it and he was unable to sit still or control himself until late that night.  I have watched my child go from happy and calm to erratic and moody in the time it takes to chew a Skittle.  I can only imagine what I put my parents through eating that stuff on a regular basis.

These ingredients affect my neurotypical children as well.  If Kieran or Lennon get their hands on something artificial, you would be hard-pressed not to wonder if they, too, fall somewhere on the spectrum.  They become irritable, scattered, and just generally hyper, if you will.

I have endured criticism from many about how I choose to feed my children, but really, is it so bad to insist my kids eat actual food?  My children are far from deprived.  They have as much candy as the next child (too much), it’s just colored and flavored with fruit juices and vegetables.  As a former candy junkie, I can attest to the yumminess of it, too. My children get jell-o, I just make it myself out of gelatin and fruit juice.   We make brightly-colored cookies at Christmas and Easter and Halloween and Valentine’s Day.  Because I am so vigilant about what they eat 98% of the time, it’s no big deal if they get an Oreo or a HFCs-laden McDonald’s hamburger every once in a while (but, like I said, previously, I make NO exceptions for colors, ever).

I put a bag of “approved” lollipops and other treats in Jack’s school backpack for parties and other treat days so he will always have something, too.  I check with birthday party hosts ahead of time to see what kind of cake is being served, and bring cupcakes for my kids if necessary.  I carry natural treats and snacks with me all the time “just in case.”

Yummy and Natural

In return for my diligence, my kids are happy, healthy, and beginning to understand the difference between good and bad foods.  In the candy aisle the other day, Lennon pointed to a bag and said, “that’s colors, and we don’t eat that.” On Halloween they were patient as I weeded through all of their loot to take out the “yucky” stuff (I always buy extra “good” stuff ahead of time to supplement what I’ve removed, and we use the offending candies to decorate our gingerbread houses at Christmas).  I don’t see them pining for anything they think is “forbidden” to them.  That’s key in my mind, as children inherently want what they’re not allowed.  By explaining that those things are “not food,” they understand.  It helps, too, that both myself and my husband eat this way as well.  We don’t have “mommy and daddy food” and “kid food.”  In our house, it’s just food, and it’s all good.

I know that someday soon my children will have to make these choices for themselves, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.  I can only hope that by normalizing natural eating and not stigmatizing it, they will make smart decisions.  And if they don’t, they can stay in their rooms until they’re fit to be around again.


*in Canada, HFCs is called “glucose-fructose”


**UPDATE 7/1/2012

Recently, in our quest to get Jack properly diagnosed here in Canada, I gave him a bag of Skittles before an assessment.  You know, to “bring on some autism” – to ensure he’d display some behaviors worth documenting.  Not only would he NOT eat them (“Mom!! I can’t eat these!! They have colors!!”), when I tried to sneak them into a bag of all natural jelly beans, he methodically picked out every offending candy and gave them back to me.  I was disappointed, but so, so proud.

He did fine in his assessment, by the way.

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  • Love it! I am one of those moms too but I don’t make the exception for anything that is not real. No colors, no HFC, no trans-fat…its not worth it for them. Something that makes them miserable is not a “treat” for anyone. I also agree that when you teach them what is real food and what is fake food, they learn to make the right choices and not feel like they are missing out.

  • Wendy

    Thanks, Megan! Love your blog, btw!

  • Great post. I’m the same. My son is 9, and he knows now what is good and what is not. Someone offers him juice “is it organic” NO? well we only eat healthy” makes me sing with pride!

    I just always talked to him about food, wrote him a little book ” my body and Food” eating “bad” food makes me feel ___, ____, etc.. good food makes me feel awesome! etc. simple and true, and he knows it know.

    We are lucky to live in a world, that now has healthy choices avialable, ingredients availalbe to make your own anything, no reason to eat crap and support the corporatioins behind the crap.

    You mention Whole Foods though, and after whole foods is now supporting the planting of GMO alfafla, I for one will be boycotting them. Spending more of my voting dollars in the farm market, and our BC owned healthy stores.

    good luck on your continued journey, see you back here again, i’m sure.


    • Wendy

      Leah, good for you!! I did not know that about WF, and I’m seriously disappointed. I’m going to have to read up on that. Now that I’m in BC I don’t make it there very often (mostly on candy runs haha), as there are so many alternatives, but I’m going to have to rethink them. So sad.

  • Nicole Smith

    Don’t forget the food in this country is also how “doctors” and pharmacists stay rich. People eat nothing but shit, fuck up their health, spend all their time in “doctors'” offices, who in turn send them to pharmacists.

  • Karen

    I would love a list to get started . Thanks for the information

    • I’m one of those moms too. Though, he does have some treats from time to time. Not because I want him to, because believe me, I don’t long for the tantrums, or the moodiness, but because he’ll sneak it at school, even though I’ve told his teacher no. It sometimes feels like a losing battle. I do try to stock up on “good” candy, but I also have to limit it, because then my kids feel as if having it in the house is free reign to eat it all the time.

  • Wendy

    Leah (and others) – there is another side to the Whole Foods/Monsanto story: