Everyone expects children to have temper tantrums or periods of being completely unreasonable. Every child does it and it's part of the learning and development process. They're usually short lived and inconsequential. After being through the terrible twos with our son, we had experienced our share of tantrums and had gotten through them fairly unscathed. Then one day everything was completely different. All of a sudden, Damian had turned into a monster as if someone flipped a switch. It appeared as though his prefrontal cortex was shut down and his limbic system was going into overdrive. We were horrified to see this behavior, and there was no seemingly reasonable explanation for it and no way to deal with this. I really did not want to get him on psychoactive drugs at such an early age, and there just had to be a reason for what was happening.
After some searching my wife found some information suggesting that artificial colors could make children hyperactive. This could explain why this completely unreasonable behavior started after Vacation Bible School. He had been fed Swedish fish, jello, gummy frogs, and other candies full of artificial colors. In a sense he had overdosed on artificial colors. But when I think of "hyperactive", I think of kids who like to run around a lot. This behavior is better described as a temporary psychosis. The kid becomes full of rage for no good reason, and his ability to think rationally is inhibited. Just look at this video. After asking him what was wrong, he replied (between cries and sobs) that it was because a wheel from his bike was touching the mulch. The reality is that he didn't understand what was happening and had no control over it.
This was just a glimpse of what happened for three days. He screamed almost constantly to the point of losing his voice. Damian also would wake up multiple times in the middle of the night screaming. It took at least 45 minutes to calm him down and get him back to sleep each time. After his behavior started to calm down during the day this sleep pattern went on for at least another week. Let's just say early morning meetings at work got a bit more challenging.
Once we understood what was possibly causing this behavior, it all made sense. Some of his worst prior tantrums were after having some brightly-colored candy but because they were still short lived we thought they were just normal kid behavior. He never before had the large amount that had been fed to him at VBS. We stopped feeding him anything with artificial colors (which is harder than it sounds) and almost miraculously, the tantrums stopped and we had our nice, well-behaved child back. Now 3 months later, he barley ever acts out and when he does he is far more reasonable and talks to us to try to fix the problem.
The main culprits are:
Red 40 (disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate)
This substance in Europe is not recommended for consumption by children. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France and Switzerland.
Yellow 5 (Trisodium (4E)-5-oxo-1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-[(4-sulfonatophenyl)hydrazono]-3-pyrazolecarboxylate)
Also called tartrazine, a variety of immunologic responses have been attributed to its ingestion, including anxiety, migraine, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance. This substance was banned in Norway, Austria and Germany.
Yellow 6 (Disodium 6-hydroxy-5-[(4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonate)
On September 9, 2011, the European Union announced that they would be reducing the maximum permitted concentration of sunset yellow (in drinks) from 50mg/L to 20mg/L. The proposed change to be adopted by the end of the year. In addition, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called for the FDA to ban Yellow 6. The CSPI said, "These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody."
Blue 1 (ethyl - [4 - [ [4 - [ethyl -[(3 - sulfophenyl) methyl] amino] phenyl] - (2 - sulfophenyl) methylidene] - 1 - cyclohexa - 2, 5 - dienylidene] - [(3 - sulfophenyl) methyl] azanium)
Brilliant Blue FCF has previously been banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland among others.
There is plenty of evidence that these so-called azo dyes are detrimental to children's mental functioning. A 2007 report from Southampton University questioned the safety of azo food dyes in three year old and 8-9 year old children. The study found increased levels of hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children consuming the chemicals. Based on the study, the UK agency advises that cutting certain artificial colors from hyperactive children's diets might have some beneficial effects.
The medical literature is full of studies that expose the deleterious effects of artificial colors. Studies such as this Assessment of Chemical Factors in Relation to Child Hyperactivity have suggested that one mechanism of action whereby certain azo dyes make your kids crazy is by reducing their blood serum levels of zinc. Meanwhile, other studies such as this Meta-Analysis of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials suggest an association between ingestion of Artificial Food Coloring and hyperactivity.
No one has to convince me, however. I've seen the evidence with my own eyes in my own child, and I've seen what happens when the azo dyes are removed from his diet. Thankfully I now have my son back. One thing is certain, though, artificial colors are very bad news and you should keep them as far away from your kids as possible.
Just because you are trying to avoid artificial colors does not mean your kid's candy has to be white and boring. There are naturally-colored alternatives like these gummy worms, for example. Granted, you will likely need to buy your kid's candy online since trying to find something without azo dyes at the store will prove to be a losing battle. The good news is that amazon has a fairly comprehensive assortment of organic candy.
You can also use natural color alternatives at home when baking a cake, making popsicles, etc:
Red Beet Powder, 2 oz.
Spinach Powder, 2 oz.
Pumpkin Powder, 4 oz.
Don't forget to supplement with a good multivitamin with zinc. Of course, make sure it has no artificial colors. These SmartyPants Gummy Vitamins with Omega 3 Fish Oil and Vitamin D are probably the best quality ingredient vitamins you can find and they are not overpriced.
I've seen the evidence with my own eyes of what happens to children when exposed to azo dyes. I'm just fortunate enough to have discovered the cause. I wonder how many parents experience this and rush their kids to a psychiatrists, only to be put on Ritalin or Adderall for the rest of their lives, doing untold damage to their normal brain development.
I think it's alarming and unfortunate that a lot of parents have not heard about the dangers of azo dyes. If you are a parent and see unexplained behavior like this in your children, please consider whether or not they are ingesting azo dyes, and experiment with removing them from their diet before giving Novartis a new customer for life. There may very well be cases where your child needs pharmaceutical help, but I believe these are extremely rare and a vanishingly small percentage of the amount of children currently prescribed these psychoactive drugs actually need them. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall may have their legitimate uses, but these should be thought of in the same vein as surgery. They should be the absolute last resort once all other avenues of treatment are exhausted.