They look harmless enough . . . not just the M&M’s in the bag up there but treats in general. I admit it, as little as three years ago I fell victim to the sin of convenience. Pre-made PB&J sandwiches happened a lot. Rice Crispie treats in the aluminum wrappers with Snap, Crackle and Pop neatly dotting the cover. Cookies, yes, and even those candies up there. You see them everywhere.
Then three years ago my wife died and I was left to care for four kids by myself. I noticed something that, when you have another adult in the house to help corral the children, I hadn’t noticed before. When I gave my kids, particularly my twin boys, any kind of candy they went nuts. I don’t mean “oh, it’s the sugar” or “they just have a lot of energy” kind of nuts. I mean arguing, fighting, peel them off the ceiling at a certain point in the day if I gave them one fun-sized bag of the brightly colored candy.
My solution was simple, though not necessarily easy. I make everything. From scratch. Don’t be too impressed, there are days where, in exhaustion and frustration from the ten loads of laundry I still have to do, I buy a bag of Oreos and put those in the kids’ lunches. For the most part, though, I make their lunch snacks. Give my kids a pre-made cookie…they go nuts. Make a batch of chocolate chip cookies…nothing. I always assumed my boys were just sensitive to something in the foods. Maybe they reacted to the high amount of high-fructose corn syrup. Fine, I’ll avoid it. Maybe it’s the preservatives in them. Fine, I’ll make the foods.
I never put much thought into the phenomenon. Sure, as a journalist I consider myself well-read. I look at studies on kids’ health and wellness and all that. I get them their vaccinations and flu shots and run to the school if the nurse calls. But this weekend I heard a report on NPR about those very M&M’s you see up there and how different they are in England.
If you look closely at that ingredient list you see “Blue 1, Yellow 6, Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, Yellow 5…” These are artificial food dyes. You’ll have a tough time finding that ingredients list in the European Union. About six years ago, the British government sponsored studies to look into the connection between artificial dyes and hyperactivity in children. The two studies said there was a connection. Out of fairness, the food companies and even other scientists disagree with some of the findings. But the findings were strong enough that the EU passed a law saying that there was a connection found between the dye and hyperactivity. As a result the M&M wrapper in Europe has things like radish, red cabbage, and numbered colorings that are things like carotene and trace back to carrots and sweet potatoes. The candies and foods are noticeably less bright but nobody seems to complain.
So why do we have so many artificial dyes here? One is that there’s no mandate to show any kind of causality between dyes and hyperactivity. Also…it looks more appealing. Kids like bright colors. But everything from marshmallows (they’re painted white) to salad dressing to strawberry sundaes contain artificial dyes. They look brighter and more appealing. Groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest are pushing for similar regulations in the US. A petition on Change.org asking for the change has over 150,000 signatures.
So what is the answer? I am a skeptic by nature, but something with the story on NPR struck with me. In the last three years we’ve cut back on fast food, processed food, and brightly colored treats. I make most meals, most desserts and the occasional trip to McDonald’s or other places is by necessity. Since then, maybe because of the changes in their age and metabolism, or maybe because of the better eating, my kids are far more even-keeled. I don’t know if the dyes are the reason . . . but I’ll keep cooking and baking my own stuff, just to be sure!
What about you? Are convenience foods the most convenient? Have you tried to change the foods you give your kids? I’m not saying you never let them have treats, but do you think about what they’re eating?