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Before I started Spoonfed, I began collecting “kid food” advertisements with the intention of skewering them on a regular basis. But as those torn pages piled up, I realized they were all the same.

Different products, different gimmicks: Lunchables give kids brain power! Pop-Tarts are the cornerstone of a balanced breakfast! McDonald’s is healthy for hipster moms and their stylish offspring!

But the same message: Kids are dumb. Parents are tired. Let’s distract them with bright colors and voodoo nutrition. (Then laugh all the way to the bank.)

Look, Mom, petroleum!

So I tossed the pile. And all the ads since have blurred into each other like a bad dream. Then this one caught my eye:

It’s Kool-Aid telling us to “change the way your kids see water.” Water. Because apparently water now is as vile to the wee, senseless ones as spinach and (white) milk.

But it’s not even that someone is trying to sell parents on tricked-out water (hello! sports drinks!). It’s that the main appeal of this tricked-out water is that it’s bright red (or purple or yellow, if you go with Gigglin’ Grape or Laughin’ Lemonade instead of Partyin’ Punch). Kool-Aid Fun Fizz isn’t touting better nutrition or bigger brains. These “drink drops” are all about making water “fun.” And, really, at “just 5 calories,” who cares about those 16 (at least) ingredients?

Yet, as I’ve written before, artificial colors are the charlatans of food additives: enticing, seemingly harmless… then wham. Linked to long-term health problems, these petroleum-derived chemicals often have immediate and devastating effects on children’s behavior and ability to learn. And unlike when we were kids (and our parents were kids), artificial colors are in everything, from food to toothpaste to medicine, even things that are white or look natural (check your pickles and “blueberries” ). Since 1955, that’s added up to a five-fold increase in dye consumption. Not. Good.

Some kids are ultra sensitive to food dyes (and other food additives, too). But even kids without that wiring can go nuts fast. I’ve seen it with my own daughter, a wild child within minutes of eating grocery-store birthday cake at friends’ parties. (It’s not the sugar, folks.) And with schoolmates who bring neon-frosted cupcakes for snacks, and dye- and preservative-laden Lunchables for lunch, then can’t listen or concentrate. It’s to the point where I actually feel ill watching kids eat this stuff.

Thanks to hard lobbying by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Feingold Association and concerned parents, the FDA will finally be examining the dye-behavior connection with a hearing in March. I don’t expect speedy resolution, but it’s progress. In the meantime? Read ingredients, ask questions, be diligent. And remember, as school-food activist Susan Rubin notes in this recent post, it’s not just about what your kid eats. It’s about what every kid around your kid eats:

“I point to this blue slushie and talk about second-hand smoke. If just one kid is bouncing off the walls because of some Skittles or other crazy colored/flavored junk, every kid in that classroom is impacted. The teacher has to work harder to gain the attention of the entire class.”

My daughter’s teacher gets it, so while I can’t control what individual kids bring for their own consumption, we have been able to avoid food dyes (and other junk) for classwide celebrations. I also love this idea from Nourish MD about a “real red” Valentine’s Day class party, where the kids talked about artificial colors and brainstormed naturally red foods. (Thanks to Food with Kid Appeal for that V-Day heads-up.)

Now. One last thing. Join me as I say goodbye to the final color fix left in our lives: The Birthday Cake.  As I explained here, we’ve long avoided food dyes as a rule, except for the birthday cake I make my daughter each year. All the other ingredients are wholesome, but then I go and junk it up with petrochemicals. I mostly blame inertia. It’s once a year, I view these cakes more as decoration than food, and I figured I’d never find natural dyes as vibrant as the fake stuff. But I’ve grown increasingly wary of food dye in any amount. The effects are too obvious, and the remedy too easy. So I got myself a set of India Tree dyes and, voila.

As luck would have it, Tess wanted a doll cake for her recent birthday, which meant I got to use the same mold I used for her mermaid cake last year. Which means I now get to do dramatic (not really) before-and-after shots:

Queen of the (neon) sea vs. nature girl

We served the cake with good ice cream, and raspberries and clementines on the side. (And water. Plain, clear water.) Nobody bounced off the walls or climbed tables or otherwise dissolved in chaos. But there was silliness and the limbo and flapping of butterfly wings. Fun fueled by little girls, natch.

Thoughts on neon food, red water, ballistic children? How do you deal with the dyes?


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