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Food dyes and allergies

You know about nuts and dairy – but did you know dyes can be an issue too? Read about one mom's quest to improve our kids' food supply.

Jen Weigel

January 10, 2011

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My son had a play date the other day, and when I picked him up, he was more hyperactive than usual. I quickly saw the reason: he was clutching a package of gummy bears.

While some kids have peanut allergies and others have dairy issues, mine goes bonkers after eating foods with too many artificial dyes.

"In the last 20 years, we've seen a 400 percent increase in food allergies," says Robyn O'Brien, founder of The Allergy Kids Foundation and author of "The Unhealthy Truth". "It's not just about milk or nuts anymore. Dyes, chemicals and synthetic hormones are causing serious health problems. And these reactions can be anything from physical, like a rash or upset stomach, to emotional or behavioral issues."

O'Brien, who had a flourishing finance career before becoming a parent, wasn't always conscious about kids' eating habits.

"I'd always sort of rolled my eyes at the whole thing," she says. "I was born and raised in Houston eating Twinkies and po-boys and so I didn't buy into any of this."

After having kids of her own and looking into some of the statistics, she became concerned.

"When I saw that there'd been a 265 percent increase in hospitalizations with kids who have food allergies, that was startling to me," says O'Brien. "That's not a mom crying wolf, those are real numbers, and I come from the world of finance, so I need to see the numbers."

O'Brien traded her briefcase for the diaper bag and now focuses on educating the public about our food supply with allergykids.com.

"I wanted to provide a user's guide for parents on how we start to make these changes," she said.

"Say your school has unhealthy food, join saladbarproject.org to try and get more fruits and veggies in your kids' cafeteria. Find other parents in your school or community with similar interests and begin the dialogue."

O'Brien says one of the biggest challenges is getting older generations to understand that this is a real problem due to a change in our food supply.

"The meat we have now isn't like the meat we had 30 years ago," says O'Brien. "In 1994 we began to engineer new proteins in the food supply. This is a fact. The first example is in the diary industry. They started injecting synthetic hormones and we don't label these ingredients on the packaging. Other countries said no because we don't know what [the hormones'] long-term effects are."

While studies have yet to be done on those long-term effects, O'Brien feels the statistics speak for themselves.

"Since the introduction of these ingredients and chemicals into our food supply, we've had a 300 percent increase in asthma, a 400 percent increase in ADHD and between a 1,500 and 6,000 percent increase in autism," she said. "There's much debate about what could be causing these increases, but I think we can't ignore these numbers."

So how can we help make changes?

"We have to speak up," she said. "Even big corporations will make changes if demand is high. Kraft put out a Lunchables in the U.K. without dyes, [and with] reduced fat and lower sodium. They don't do it here because it's more expensive to use natural ingredients, and we haven't demanded this change here in the U.S."

But O'Brien says that because of complaints in the U.S. about high fructose corn syrup, Kraft is no longer using it as an ingredient in the popular drink Capri Sun.

"We are a community of 300 million eaters -- 75 million kids -- and if you think about that and decide to speak up about what we want in the aisles it can make a difference. Nobody can be perfect but we can all do something, so pick one thing."

That one thing for O'Brien was her children's love of powdered cheese sauce.

"My kids were totally addicted to fluorescent mac and cheese," she said. "I knew I couldn't stop giving it to them cold turkey so I started by only using half the powder packet, and eventually got rid of it altogether … but it wasn't easy. They craved that stuff."

Other snack replacements O'Brien recommends include real chocolate chips instead of M&Ms, pretzels rather than chips or colored goldfish crackers, and plain yogurt with fruit or sprinkles instead of artificially colored yogurts.

"You have to do this in baby steps or you'll have mutiny in the kitchen," she said. "Some snacks might have real sugar, but at least they aren't filled with chemicals and dyes. We don't want to take all the fun out of eating with kids, but we can start to make smarter choices to keep them healthy."

Do you have some tips for helping your kids eat healthier? Let us know!

jweigel@tribune.com