Politics and Science
First of all, there is no black and white answer to this question. Yet. When it comes to food science and politics, we live in a very grey world. You’ve probably heard conflicting information on food dyes and safety – so if you’re confused, you’re not alone. There has been a debate over the link between food dyes and hyperactivity in children since the 1970s. The Feingold Association of the US, inspired by Dr. Ben F. Feingold, encourages a diet free of the common chemical additives found in food, including food dyes. There have been a few studies testing the Feingold Hypothesis, which have shown mixed results. Often, the study size and methods have been criticized. Although food dyes are present in many popular food items, the dyes are only present in small amounts (parts per billion/trillion). To be fair, it is difficult to test the health effects of exposure to low-dose chemicals. Scientists would need a large amount of test subjects to study over a matter of decades. In addition, the companies who use food dyes are reluctant to give them up and may use political influence to keep this controversy at bay.
The Southampton Study
A 2007 British study, known as the Southampton study, has been a focus in the current debate. For this study, 3- and 8-year-olds were given two kinds of drinks that contained a mix of dyes. Behavior reported by parents showed a notable increase in hyperactivity, but reports from teachers and other observers did not. The study was criticized for using a mixture of dyes with a preservative. Critics claimed that it was hard to tell which substance was causing the problem. On the other hand, the study’s designers argued that a child very rarely ingests just one artificial color or just a preservative. In fact, the food items that contain artificial dyes often contain several colors and at least one preservative.
Despite its criticisms, the findings were significant enough in the eyes of the British government to spark legal action. The European Union now requires that most foods with artificial food dyes come with a warning label. The label reads: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Several US corporations have redeveloped their products for the UK market, including Kraft and Coca-Cola.
Meanwhile, in the US…
The Southampton study did bring some pressure onto the FDA to follow suit with the UK’s effort. In 2011, the FDA concluded that there is not enough evidence to prove whether food dyes cause hyperactivity. One of the strongest advocates for a food dye ban has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI has been pushing the FDA to ban eight artificial food dyes. There has been special attention placed on Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, as these make up 90 percent of the food dyes on the US market. The CSPI released a document titled “Rainbow of Risks”, claiming food dyes might have links to health issues beyond hyperactivity, including cancer.
You may feel like this article gave you more questions than answers. I feel similar. I do find it interesting that the burden of proof does not rest upon food companies to show that dyes are safe. Rather, it is up to food safety advocates to prove that they are unsafe. I find it unsettling that there have been a large number of color additives once regarded as safe, that are no longer authorized for use. Let’s not forget that smoking was once believed to be safe as well. Perhaps time is the real teacher.
In the end, let’s recall that food dyes are only really used to sell junky, processed, and unhealthy foods. These are foods that we should limit anyway, both for our kids and ourselves. As far as we know, food dyes have no health benefits. Therefore, avoiding them will not cause harm to your kids. There are several natural options for food coloring including beets, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, berries, red cabbage, turmeric, saffron, and paprika. Food with fake dyes may not come with a package warning in the US, but they are listed with the ingredients. So if food dye safety concerns you, your best defense is reading the label.
Since my oldest son started kindergarten this year I have worked on packing healthy lunches for him, but also packing items he will actually eat. My oldest son is a picky eater, so I have spent many evenings opening his lunch box to discover he didn’t eat much of what I packed for him. I realize that packing healthy lunches is only HALF of the challenge. It does no good to pack something your child won’t eat (even with repeat attempts), and it feels wasteful. If you’re concerned about what your child eats or doesn’t eat at school, consider the following tips:
Incorporate All Food Groups
When choosing a healthy diet, it’s important to consider moderation, variety, and balance. A balanced diet includes food from all the food groups. While you know (or will find out) which foods from each group your child will eat, here are some ideas for school lunch-friendly options:
Try fresh carrot, celery, or zucchini sticks with dip (hummus, ranch dressing, etc.).
Add healthy greens to sandwiches (no iceberg lettuce – it lacks nutrients).
Add bell peppers, carrot, and/or broccoli to a whole grain pasta salad.
Make kale chips. This may take a few attempts, but let your kids see you eating them too. Play it off like they are your new “fun” snack chips.
Dice up fresh fruit like apples, pears, watermelon, pineapple, peaches, etc.
Include fresh or frozen berries like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, etc. This is usually an easy sell, even for picky eaters. My boys both enjoy pomegranate as well.
Add banana to a peanut butter sandwich (if nut butters are allowed at your child’s school). If not, try adding a few chocolate chips to a banana, which counts as a fruit serving but is also a special treat.
Add baked chicken or turkey to sandwiches, or serve by itself if your child prefers.
Add deli meats to sandwiches, but use caution as many of these can be very processed with added preservatives, dyes, fillers, and nitrates. Here are some helpful tips for choosing better cold cut meats.
Give your child hard boiled or deviled eggs
If nuts are allowed at your child’s school, you can give them ¾ – 1 cup of nuts or seeds. Surprisingly, my kids have grown to adore peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
Beans count! Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas and lentils, though technically considered legumes, can be considered a vegetable or protein according to MyPlate.
Give your child a single serving of low-fat milk without added sweeteners. Or, if you include a sweetened milk beverage, limit added sugars elsewhere in the child’s diet.
Calcium-fortified soy milk or almond milk are good options for children who do not tolerate dairy well.
Try giving them pieces of different cheeses they enjoy. You can purchase small single serving cheese sticks or pieces, but I often buy a huge block and cut it into cheese “stick” form.
Yogurt is calcium-rich but also contains healthy probiotics. Beware: some store-bought yogurt has a lot of added sugar or even fake fruit. Here is good advice for choosing a healthier yogurt.
Try different whole grain sandwich breads, pitas, and tortillas at home and see which ones your child prefers. Use these in place of refined or enriched grains in their lunches.
Whole grain pasta is a great option for lunches, especially pasta salads that are best served cold.
Use whole grain bagels or English muffins and let your child assemble a mini pizza for lunch.
Get Your Kids Involved
This topic goes along with my tips for picky eaters. Give your kids healthy food options from each food group and let them make the final decisions on what goes in their lunch. Take your child grocery shopping with you and give them some liberty in choosing items for your shopping cart. Giving them a sense of responsibility and empowerment is very helpful! Let your kids actually pack the lunch with you – spend time with them the night before to get lunch packed for the following day. You can also involve them by making your own healthy homemade snacks at home. I know my kids are more interested in eating the food items they helped create.
Make it Fun
Maybe this goes without saying, but kids love to have fun. You can buy specially made sandwich cutters that will turn their normal bread into fun shapes like trains, hearts, etc. You can also try using cookie cutters. You can make kid-friendly “kebabs” using kid-friendly skewers – here are a few ideas. Melon-ballers are an easy tool for making fruit look more fun. Maybe kids also think it’s fun to dip foods, so consider adding one of their favorite dips to encourage healthy eating.
Give them Variety
As mentioned before, variety is an important component of a healthy diet. Make sure you’re rotating through lunch ideas as much as possible. Keep track of your child’s favorites and pack those (after all, we want “successful” lunches that your child actually eats), but add new things too. When choosing new foods to try, consider the tastes and textures your child already enjoys and find similar, yet different, items.
The Amazing “Bento Box”
There are many options for lunch boxes these days, but I am a huge fan of the reusable bento-type boxes (like Yumbox). You can find these online in many different price ranges. You can also purchase plastic or stainless steel depending on your preference. I love these boxes because they keep food from being smashed in a book bag and they keep it separated and organized.
I’m not a fan of candy or sweets in general, but it seems like they’re everywhere. To my horror, my kids have attended three schools and all of them have handed out candy as rewards. You’ll even see it at school sporting events. Yes, even for the youngest athletes… but that’s a subject for another day. So Halloween comes around and you may wonder how to handle the “loot” your kids bring home. As a mother, the negative effects of a candy binge are at the forefront of my mind. This is where we need to shift the focus temporarily from nutrition to habits. Yes, I’m suggesting Halloween (and other holidays) can be the perfect time to teach kids healthy habits. Self-regulation is an important skill and they’re going to learn it one day, with or without you. I encourage building this skill in childhood, as studies have shown that our eating habits as children usually carry on into adulthood. Here is a list of ways you can use Halloween candy as a TOOL for promoting healthy eating habits:
Encourage taste testing
What better way to encourage trying new foods, than with food they already want to try? Allow your kids to take a small bite out of several kinds of candy and ask them to talk about each one. Discuss how the candy tastes, smells, and feels. By doing this, you’re promoting the idea that it’s fun to try new things. This also helps them discover which candies they prefer, which brings us to the next tip…
Eat only the food you like best
It’s common to eat food just because it’s “there”. We need to teach kids to value their favorites and turn down the rest. When snack and junk food is in abundance (holidays, etc.), it’s important to learn we don’t have to eat in excess. Suggest trading the candy your kids don’t like for something else. This trade off can be for a toy or special experience (“We’ll go to the park,” or “You can have a slumber party with friends”). Teach your kids to eat what they like, not what they have.
Teach moderation and proportion
It’s okay to indulge sometimes, as long as it’s not a daily habit. Even when treating yourself, it’s important not to over-do it. Teach your kids moderation. Explain to them that candy is okay in small amounts, but we should eat a lot more from other food groups. Tell them: “We need to eat more fruits and vegetables than candy.” Draw them your own “food pyramid”, and explain why candy occupies the smallest portion of the picture.
So you’ve separated your kids’ favorite candies from the less desirable ones – now what? Let your kids know that they can have one piece of candy per day. Let them decide when they eat it. This technique gives them the freedom they want, while giving them the limitation they need.
Suggestion: Decide on a timeframe to continue this policy. Most dentists agree that it’s better to make candy eating season short, even if intake during that time is high. Give it 2 weeks or less.
Dealing with picky eaters can be a challenge for many parents with young kids. My youngest son is a great eater. He eats, or at least tries, pretty much any food I put in front of him. However, my older son has always been picky. Sometimes he even rejects food that he once loved. It’s easy for parents to worry that their kids don’t receive sufficient nutrients for their growing bodies. Here are a few tips for helping your picky eater enjoy healthy food:
Treat Picky Eaters with Patience
Young children will often turn up their noses to new foods. Children find security in the familiar, so it’s natural for them to resist change – this includes food choices. Kids are comfortable with the foods they enjoy, and if left to their own devices, would live solely on these foods. I’m certain my kids would live off processed junk food if given the choice. These food products are typically high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt. Artificial flavors and dyes are often added too. Remember that most kids need repeated neutral exposure to new foods. Introduce new foods without pressure. Let your kids watch you enjoy a new healthy food and don’t force them to try it. Repeat this many times. Studies have shown that kids may need eight or more exposures to a new food before liking it. Studies have also shown that parental food choices influence those of their children. If you eat healthy foods on a regular basis, your kids will too. Patience is the key.
Involve Picky Eaters in Choosing Foods
While food shopping, have your kids choose some fruits and vegetables. Young kids start to develop a sense of independence and will love feeling in control. Whenever possible, involve your kids in meal preparation too. They will love helping with safe tasks like mixing ingredients in a bowl. Kids may be more apt to try foods they helped prepare. Give your kids access to the healthy food they picked out. Placing bowls of cut fruits and vegetables where kids can reach them might prompt them to try a piece.
Mix Healthy Foods with Foods Picky Eaters Enjoy
Most kids like condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, or salad dressing. Let them dip their green beans in one of their favorite condiments. Another idea is to pour melted cheese over broccoli. It may not be ideal – but I’d rather see my kids eat vegetables with cheese or ranch dip, than none at all. Remember to pick your battles. If your kids eat a new vegetable when you add something extra, you’re still making progress!
Make It Fun for Picky Eaters
Children’s work is play, so it’s a good idea to put fun into the mix. Kids love guessing games. While blindfolded, have them guess the names of fruits and vegetables based on their shapes and textures. Make up silly songs about fruits and vegetables. Kids are very creative when it comes to having fun, so encourage them to make up their own games. I also involved my picky eater with planting the seeds for our garden, which grabbed his interest and attention. He has enjoyed watching the plants grow and produce food. This has also sparked an interest in “where food comes from”, which is a great ongoing discussion to have with kids.
If you have any other tips/ideas that have worked with your picky eater, please leave me a comment below!