How to cut out dyes has become a common topic among mothers and natural living advocates alike. But why should you cut out synthetic dyes and where do you even begin? What about Christmas, birthday parties, and families who aren’t on the same page? And where do you even buy synthetic color free food? We are here to answer all those questions!
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about dyes over the last few years.
It has a become a hot topic, particularly among mothers.
For years we’ve kept artificial dyes in our cupboards without a second thought.
We’ve used food coloring for everything from baking and icing birthday cakes to enjoying green eggs while reading Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham.
From ice cream to pickles, strawberry milk, yogurt, and everything in between.
Dyes were all around us, but we never really noticed until the day when you couldn’t help but notice.
Let’s start with a disclaimer here because someone is going to say it:
This is a dye-free blog. This is not about seed oils, sugar content, or processed foods in general. Everyone is at a different place in their journey. You may have mastered kicking all processed foods to the curb- and I am proud of you for that- but not everyone else has or even wants to. Deciding to go synthetic color free is a wonderful choice, so let’s just focus on that!
This blog is not to diagnose, cure, or treat any condition in you or your child. Talk to your doctor, naturopath, or medical provider if you have any questions regarding your specific child’s health needs.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s chat synthetic dyes and why our family initially cut them out to begin with.
“Mom, I can’t help it.”
Those were the words that changed it all for me.
Most of you know I didn’t start out as a raw milk loving, beef liver consuming, organically sourcing, crazy crunchy Mama.
But my oldest son changed all that. (And for the better, I might add!)
He is the ideal oldest child. Responsible, level headed, and brilliant. He can be a goofball and is full of personality, but he isn’t the type to act out.
But every now and then though, he just would.
It was almost as if someone flipped a switch and no matter how much I disciplined, pleaded, begged, or scolded he just kept on.
“Typical toddler life,” I reassured myself.
But something in my gut told me it was more than that.
One night I was sitting on my couch looking into the playroom- exactly as I am now actually– he was wilding out in the corner of the room and I calmly asked him to stop.
“Please stop, buddy.”
“I said stop!”
“Mom, I can’t help it,”
His voice was so sincere and the look in his eyes seemed to be a cry for help.
I had read before that dyes could cause these kinds of issues in children, but I had brushed it off. Cutting them out seemed like so much work, but in that moment something inside of me knew we had to try.
The Outcome that Changed Everything
So we cut them.
And truth be told I didn’t think it had made a difference. In fact, I almost forgot we had stopped consuming them.
Until Easter came, the rules slipped, and we ended in a downward spiral of chaos and puke all over the couch.
TMI- I know. But cutting dyes changes a lot!
I didn’t realize how much until we had abandoned them and reintroduced them.
And that’s when my mind started wandering:
If it affects their behavior, that means it has an effect on the brain. If it has an effect on the brain- then what else is it messing with?
So, What’s So Bad About Dyes?
First off, dyes have one purpose and one purpose only- to color things.
They aren’t added for extra protein or even to improve taste. They simply enhance the color.
While there are tons of natural ways to alter the color of food- like turmeric and beets for example- artificial dyes are the cheapest and easiest route.
The thing is dyes weren’t made to give us the healthiest, most nourishing meals; they were designed to give us the brightest colored meal.
And who is that most appealing to? You guessed it, children!
Dyes aren’t just a neutral additive.
Synthetic dyes are most commonly associated with childhood behavioral issues, but that is barely scratching the surface of the problems dyes can cause.
To know why dyes are such an issue, let’s start with where they come from.
What are dyes made from?
I’m glad you asked!
Dyes are most commonly made from petrochemicals. (Which is about as good as it sounds.)
Petrochemicals are chemicals obtained from petroleum or natural gas.
Yes, I too am wondering how that become a common part of our American diet.
Anytime we are deriving chemicals from petroleum products for human consumption, we should give pause to wonder how this will effect our bodies.
Synthetic dyes are an FDA approved.
That’s probably not saying much, but even under the FDA’s approval company’s must meet standards like: sharing the dye used on the product label and not exceeding maximum amounts.
Here is the issue- dyes are in almost all processed foods anymore.
So while that bag of Cheetos itself may not exceed the maximum amount of dye allowed- add it with a handful of skittles, a Strawberry milk, the cereal you had for breakfast, and the popsicle after dinner and your child is a rainbow of excessive synthetic dyes.
Though I would argue the maximum amount allowed in a product is still too much given the risks of dyes, you can still see the issue with the FDA’s approval.
Side note- artificial dyes are banned in other countries.
So, What Are the Risks Associated with Dyes?
There are a lot of reasons to abandon dyes, but let’s touch on some of the top risks associated with synthetic dye consumption.
As a Mama, you are probably most familiar with red #40.
Red #40 is the most common synthetic dye. It is present in all kinds of kid favorites- everything from chips and gummies to candy coated chocolates like M&Ms.
The effects of red #40 include hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms in children.
It also is commonly contaminated with carcinogens- meaning it can lead to cancers.
Many Mamas have opted to cut out red #40 before trying other treatments for ADHD, but what about the other dyes? Red #3, Yellow #6, Blue #1, and on and on it goes- are those dyes safe?
What Dyes Should You Cut Out?
When we first cut out dyes, I started with only red #40.
It was the only one I ever really heard mentioned, but after digging a little deeper, I realized that all synthetic dyes have issues associated with them.
Some even worse than those associated with red #40.
Yellow numbered dyes are associated also with hyperactivity and genotoxicity. Genotoxicity is damage to the DNA and its sequences. DNA is essentially our foundational blueprint. Changes to our DNA can altar any part of our body, so this is a particularly scary issue in my opinion.
Blue numbered dyes are associated with inhibited nerve cell development and tumors.
Source Note: This information above is cited from Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks. The complete link can be found in the “Sources Cited” section down below! I highly recommend reading over the paper in its entirety!
All things considered, every synthetic dye comes with a risk.
And what is the benefit?
More brightly colored food?
This should leave us scratching our heads and asking why synthetic dyes are still such a common part of the typical American diet. (I do have some encouraging news on that down below though!)
Okay, so we all want what is best for our children, and we all want to give them the best start to life possible.
But where do we even begin?
Dyes are all around us, how can we possibly cut them out?
So How Do You Begin to Cut Out Dyes?
Here are 3 simple steps to get you started on your journey to cutting out dyes for your family:
1. Conquering the Grocery Store:
Most food battles are either won or lost in the grocery store. If it doesn’t come home with you, you probably won’t eat it.
The trick to cutting out dyes is in reading labels.
Synthetic dyes are labelled as a color followed by a number. Red #40, Blue #1, Yellow #6- for example.They generally will appear towards the end of the label.
Some things may be obvious- like Takis for example- but the trickiest dyes to spot are those in chocolate, bright white, or green items.
Oftentimes chocolate items may contain all of the primary dyes in order to give the food a brown appearance. The same is true for pickles and Cole slaw which may contain blue and yellow dyes in order to give a greener appearance. Items like marshmallows and cream cheese frosting may contain Blue #1 or Red #40 to give a brighter or less buttery appearance.
Buying Organic can help avoid artificial dyes and colors, but the best trick may simply be to shop the outskirts of your local store.
The outskirts of a grocery store- meaning the perimeter around the actual aisles- is generally the healthiest food.
This includes meat, dairy products (*always check yogurts, ice creams, and strawberry milk though), and produce.
The less time you spend in the actual aisles, the less likely you are to purchase processed and artificially colored food products.
2. Simple Swaps and Homemade Food
Simple swaps are some of the easiest ways to navigate a synthetic color-free life.
Flip over a pack of Jet-Puffed Marshmallows in the store and you are most likely going to see Blue #1 listed as an ingredient. The blue hue makes the white marshmallows appear brighter.
Generally speaking, there is going to be a generic or store brand close by and a lot of times that cheaper brand will not have synthetic dyes.
This is true for items all around your grocery store.
The store brand will often not have the same synthetic dyes as the name brand. This isn’t always the case, but have a look around the next time you grocery shop and I’m betting you will find some examples of this!
There are so many options on the market today that swaps are easier than ever to make, but what you cannot find in the store can be easily recreated at home.
Gummies, cheese-itz, and even cereals can be easily made at home with better ingredients and no synthetic dyes.
A simple Google search is all it takes to find the perfect recipe to appease your craving and keep your convictions!
3. Plan Ahead
If we win the battle in the grocery store, then we are generally going to win at home.
But what about the days outside of the home?
The family road trips, weekend get aways, holidays with the family, and even the days spent grocery shopping with hangry (hungry + angry) toddlers.
These are the moments where we are most likely to slip and consume something we later wish we hadn’t.
Planning ahead is the simplest way to avoid unwanted dyes.
Whether you choose to pack your own meals or snacks or to plan your stops ahead of time is up to you.
Many stores and restaurants have now taken the dye free pledge, so finding food free from synthetic colors on the road is not impossible.
In fact, it may be easier than you think. (More on that down below!)
Planning ahead is the best way to navigate any dietary change.
Of course packing up your own made from scratch food is a beautiful way to plan your family’s next meal regardless of where you may be, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.
The best part of this dye free journey is that though there is a lot to learn in the beginning, once you know it, you know it.
For example, once you know that your favorite protein bar is made with real ingredients- you don’t have to keep coming back and reading the label every single time you go in the grocery store. Shopping becomes just as grab-and-go as ever- just much better for your family!
Frequently Asked Questions
I get a lot of questions every time I mention that our family is dye-free. So, let’s answer some of the most common in case you are wondering the same things! (We are always happy to answer questions on Instagram, Facebook, or by email.
You can email us at [email protected]
What About Birthday Parties and Family Outings?
I get this question so often when I talk about cutting dyes.
And I would be lying if I said we had never cheated at a birthday party.
It is hard to see your child being the only kid who can’t have a piece of the giant colorful cake.
I’ve bribed my children into handing over their Piñata candy in exchange for a trip to get ice cream. (We are blessed with some local dairies with healthy, dye free ice cream options.)
I’ve brought them homemade cupcakes and alternatives.
The thing is coming up with a better alternative is the easy part. It is the sad look on their faces and seeing them left out that actually stings.
I cannot take that sting away, but I can encourage you with this:
You are doing what is best for your child even though it is hard. That is an amazing love. To lay aside what others think of you, to care enough to plan an alternative snack- I know it is hard. But you do this with so much love. You steward the child that God gave you so well, please remember that!
And who knows, your example may bleed off on to others!
At the bottom of this post, you will find a “shop this post” section. In it are dye-free alternatives for food coloring, sprinkles, candy, and all kinds of other goodies to help you plan a dye free birthday party or treat your child to dye-free options at a friend’s party!
How do I talk about this with my child, husband, or family member who is not on board?
Convincing your children they shouldn’t have candy and hot pink icing is a difficult feat, b honesty is the best policy.
In general, children like to feel good, and when they associate what they eat with how they feel, they will often choose the better option.
Not always, of course.
We may have to battle from time to time, but it is not daily.
When it comes to husbands and families who don’t support a dye-free lifestyle, the best thing you can do is offer the data.
There are a list of links to sources down below.
For many, that is enough. Once they see the truth, they are willing to do whatever it takes to help you cut out synthetic dyes for your children.
The sad truth, though, is that many will not care even with the data. Most assume because they have eaten it their entire life with no foul side-effects that it must be safe.
The lack of support can sting a little, especially if your husband is bringing in Skittles or you Mother-in-law is accusing you of stealing away the joy of childhood. (Which is odd, but I have heard people make that claim.)
When it is distant family, you must remember that you are the Mama and you get to make the rules. Sometimes you have to put your foot down.
As a very non-assertive person, I know how hard that can be.
When it is your husband though, you can only cling to your convictions and pray that he will see the truth as well.
I would never encourage you to berate your husband or argue with him.
From one Mama to another, I can’t imagine how hard it is to not have support in something as important as this, but I am so proud of you for standing firm and doing your best even when it feels like the world is against you.
Is Annatto a Synthetic Dye?
I threw this question in because I know it is going to be asked.
And that’s fine, it’s a good question.
Annatto is a coloring agent that is made from the seeds of the achiote tree.
Annatto is common in lots of ethnic dishes.
In America, we generally see annatto used in coloring cheeses.
Annatto is not bad for you in and of itself.
The issue is some brands of annatto have been known to mix red #40 in for a brighter color, you will simply have to research if this is the case with your own go-to brands though I do not perceive it to be common practice.
Others who have allergic reactions to synthetic dyes may have similar reactions with annatto.
Our family does not currently avoid annatto as it doesn’t seem to cause any issues. I would suggest if you suspect issues from annatto in your own home to cut it out for about 30 days and then reintroduce it to see how it affects your family.
In the case of migraine, hives, or swelling with any dyes or annatto coloring, discontinue use!
Where Are The Best Places to Find Dye Free Options
I know what you’re thinking: I’m on board, but this seems really difficult!
Let’s try and simplify it as much as we can!
The best grocery stores to find dye free options are places like:
Trader Joe’s: Trader Joe’s claims to never use synthetic colors in their branded products.
Whole Foods: Whole Foods claims to have actually remained dye-free since the 1980s!
Aldi: Aldi is a German grocery store touted for its cheaper prices and healthier options. Though, Aldi may carry other brands that use synthetic colors, their signature brands like: Happy Farms, Millville, and Fit and Active should be dye free. (Always check labels to be certain the first time you buy!)
Kroger: Kroger carries plenty of dye filled options in their name brand products, however, Kroger’s brand Simple Truth Organic is free from 101+ additives including synthetic color free!
Online stores like Thrive Market and Azure Standard are also dye free! (Links to their stores in the shop this post section below!)
Many Restaurants, Drive Thru’s, and Eateries have also taken the dye-free pledge like:
Dunkin’ Donuts (Donuts are dye free, I’m not sure about all drinks!)
Note: All of the above restaurants have removed synthetic dyes from their products- the keyword being “their”. If they are carrying other brands, like Taco Bell’s Doritos Loco Taco for example, then it may not be dye free.
Navigating Life With Real Colors
Finding dyes in everything from coffee to pickles, ice cream to white frosting can feel overwhelming, but the good news is God gave us a rainbow of dye-free foods to consume.
Fruits, vegetables, meat, most dairy, eggs, and nuts are all synthetic color free.
Real food is made with real ingredients and real colors!
All this to say, there is still a rainbow of food out there for you and your family to enjoy.
Removing synthetic colors is a healthier option for your family, and though it can feel difficult in the beginning- it can be done.
Mamas- just like you– are making that shift every single day and because of that the conversation is changing and children are becoming healthier!
How Mamas- Just Like You– Are Changing the Conversation!
A few years ago, FD&C (food, drug and cosmetic) dyes were in almost everything from children’s Ibuprofen to popsicles. While dyes are still far more prevalent than we would like to see them, Mamas- just like you- are changing the conversation and the food industry in turn!
The reason so many grocery stores and restaurants are stepping up to take dye-free pledges is to bring families back in through their doors.
The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world, and the hand that manage the grocery budget is speaking louder than any other advocate for natural living ever could.
Mamas are shifting to a dye-free lifestyle and companies are following!
Because of you pledging to take your family on a dye-free journey, because companies with real ingredients are making more than those with artificial, and because Mamas are putting their children’s needs over their own convenience- the landscape of processed food is changing.
Maybe someday our sons and daughters will shop freely for their own children- free to ignore product labels because food is made with real ingredients. Maybe our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be a healthier generation because we chose to care about what our children consumed.
The steps you take today are changing the future.
Keep Walking Mama, you’re changing the world!
A Rainbow of Risks Research Paper– This goes over the findings associated with each color dye individually. I highly encourage you to read it if you want to know more about the effects of dyes on the body.
Trader Joe’s source: 6 Ingredients You Won’t Find in Trader Joe’s Products, According to Employees
Whole Foods: Whole Foods Market doesn’t Use Artificial Coloring
Aldi’s: About Our Ingredients
Shop This Post:
Dye Free Suckers (Our favorite, and great for piñata fillers)
And Dye Free Chewy’s (like starburst)
Dye Free Giggles (like Skittles, great for filling Easter eggs)
Natural Egg Dye Kit(For Easter eggs)
Dye Free Candy Canes (I’m so excited about these! We had to cut out candy canes last year, but these are a game changer!)
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