Colour me Grumpy

It never ceases to amaze me what gets put into food these days. Last year we discovered, through a painful process of trial and error, that our then-5-year-old, Chloe, reacts badly to colours. It’s not a life threatening, call an ambulance style reaction, but a more insidious, subtle reaction that nevertheless had significant ramifications for our family life. She got grumpy.

In fact, she was more than grumpy, she was often quite distressed. It did not change her personality, but it seemed to move her much closer to “the edge”. Crises were magnified, anxiety inflamed, and distress seemed exponentially increased. In short, it made everything dramatically harder for her, and in consequence for us, than it needed to be.

This was a difficult discovery to make, because it wasn’t as simple as noting her reaction to “red cordial”, which is the classic behaviour-bomb that everyone knows about. In fact she didn’t react noticeably to the obvious culprits, simply because it turns out that there are some seriously troublesome colours in the most ordinary of ordinary foods. Once our attention turned to colours (and I can’t even remember why we became suspicious, but I do know that it was an act of desperation even to look into it), we found them in everything from cheese to fruit juice. Margarine, yoghurt, ice cream, biscuits, bread, sauces – even antibiotics. Forget lollies and soft drinks, colours were sneaking into almost every food in our pantry – and we have a healthy diet with a higher than average emphasis on unprocessed foods.

Thanks to fedup (, we soon discovered that even the label “no artificial colours” was no guarantee of safety, as one of the worst additives is 160(b) – also known as Annatto – which is a yellow colouring derived from a plant, and hence “natural”. It is associated with a huge range of behavioural problems, and indeed seems to be one of Chloe’s worst triggers.

When these “nasty” colours are constantly in your diet, spotting reactions to the obvious ones may be difficult, simply because the reaction is always happening. Indeed, once we had eliminated colours from our family diet, it became apparent that any inadvertent colours creeping into our food supply had an impact on me, as well as on Chloe. We talk a lot about the behavioural effects of colours and other additives on kids, but I wonder how many adults are walking around strung out, tense and aggravated, simply because of these bizarre chemicals in their diets.

The food industry resists all calls for change with a startling stubbornness. Why would they want to be associated with something that might harm people? One simple reason. Marketing. Apparently icecream that is more yellow (often due to the addition of 160(b) or 102 (tartrazine), both known causes of behavioural problems) sells better. Apple juice usually contains 150(d). Even orange or combination juices now often have 160(b).

Our food is being adulterated for the purposes of marketing. Well, there are few aspects of our lives that are not massively manipulated by marketing companies these days, so I suppose it should come as no surprise. But there is no food value – arguably there is actually negative food value. They do not change the taste. They simply manipulate our purchasing decisions. Is that worth poisoning us for? According to the big food companies, the answer, apparently, is yes.

The antibiotics our 6 year old recently needed were coloured with E129 – a red colouring which has been banned in the UK because of its proven health effects, particularly on children. Yet it is not possible – yes, you read that correctly, NOT POSSIBLE – to get antibiotics that don’t have colours in them. I find that truly remarkable.

Progress is being made, very slowly. Some confectionary companies use safe colours – thank goodness for The Natural Food Company. And even some “big supermarket” branded products now trumpet their lack of colours. It is possible to get icecream that is no yellower than the cream and egg it is made from, although it does involve a lot of careful label reading.

We’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go. A few moments light reading in your pantry will show you that. Meanwhile all we can do is read the labels, learn to recognise the worst culprits, and try to avoid them wherever possible. Presumably the food companies will come to their senses eventually – but we may need to remove colours from their diets first!

P.S. Here is a list of the worst colours, thanks to FedUp (we generally avoid 102-160(b) inclusive, as it’s easier to remember, but some of the colours inside that range are reasonably safe):

102 Tartrazine

104 Quinoline Yellow

110 Sunset Yellow

122 Azorubine, Carmoisine

123 Amaranth

124 Ponceau, Brilliant Scarlet

127 Erythrosine

129 Allura Red

132 Indigotine

133 Brilliant Blue

142 Green S

143 Fast Green FCF

151 Brilliant Black

155 Brown HT

160(b) Annatto


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