Three Food Changes for a Healthier Child

by Brooke Bernard on April 18, 2012

I will never forget the moment an occupational therapist mentioned to me as I sat in her office with my overly sensitive, unnaturally emotional and – let’s just say it – difficult 3-year-old that perhaps artificial food dyes might be causing some of his “issues.” In my own 32 years, it had really never occurred to me that food had any relationship with behavior or health. Sure, I had heard of “organics.” But wasn’t that just some trendy fad for the upper class and celebrity set?

Intrigued by the idea that I could help my son and our family out of our distress by simple diet changes, I jumped aboard the research train. What I learned along the way is that food – especially the chemical concoctions so much American food contains – severely impact all children’s brains and bodies every day. What our kids are ingesting is often linked to tics, skin disorders such as eczema, migraines, mood disorders, ADHD, ADD, autism symptoms, sensory integration disorder, difficulty learning, poor handwriting, trouble transitioning from one activity to another, rage and much more.  And that list doesn’t even include what parents might not see for years to come such as dementia and cancers.

My son didn’t need pharmaceuticals (ironic how everyone recognizes that the chemicals in drugs impact our bodies but often believe that those same kinds of chemicals in food are harmless) or thousands of dollars in therapy or even a good spanking to become himself. He just needed some simple lifestyle changes. If your child is too sensitive (so that it negatively impacts his life), doesn’t succeed in school, shows abnormal anxiety levels, has difficulty sleeping, exhibits behavior issues, or battles illnesses such as ear infections more than normal, these diet changes might be a starting point to help your family, too.

  1. Eliminate synthetic (artificial) food dyes. These chemicals, made from petroleum, are required to be listed on ingredient labels. So, if the package contains a color/number combination of any kind such as Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5 simply place that product back on the grocery store shelf. These chemical dyes are scientifically linked to behavior and hyperactivity issues in children. The science is so solid, in fact, that many other countries require any product containing them to carry a black box warning label! As a result, Kraft Mac n Cheese and even M&Ms are sold all naturally in most of Europe but still contain toxins here in the United States.

Other articles about the dangers of synthetic dyes can be found here and here.

  1. Just say no to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Despite what manufacturers want consumers to believe, high fructose corn syrup isn’t simply another kind of sugar. Not only have food experts expressed concern about HFCS consumption among kids as a cause for the rise in childhood obesity, recently released research on autism links the current American epidemic to HFCS.

According to the study, “The number of children ages 6 to 21 in the U.S. receiving special education services under the autism disability category increased 91% between 2005 and 2010.” A comparison between Americans (who eat on average 35.7 pounds of HFCS per year) and Italians (who rarely consume it) suggests the increase in autism in the U.S. “is not related to mercury exposure from fish, coal-fired power plants, thimerosal, or dental amalgam but instead to the consumption of HFCS.” (For more breakdown of the study, click here.) Why take the risk? Be a savvy label reader and put anything containing high fructose corn syrup back on the shelf. Alternatives are always available.

  1. Avoid food products and packages containing BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and TBHQ (tert-butyl-hydroquinone). Many studies have demonstrated the negative health impacts of these petro-chemical based preservatives. You can browse a list of those studies here.

What you’ll find in this research is information such as this from a study titled The effect of BHA and BHT on behavioral development of mice: “The chronic ingestion of .5% butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) by pregnant mice and their offspring resulted in a variety of behavioral changes. Compared to controls, BHA-treated offspring showed increased exploration, decreased sleeping, decreased self-grooming, slower learning, and a decreased orientation reflex. BHT-treated offspring showed decreased sleeping, increased social and isolation-induced aggression, and a severe deficit in learning.” Um, no thanks.
Many manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using BHA in their products due to public outcry (and again, BHA is considered so dangerous that it is banned in many other developed countries). Often BHT and TBHQ are not specifically used in a food product but on food boxes and bags to “preserve freshness.” However, the chemicals are nevertheless coming in contact with the food and can adversely impact children’s health and behavior.

Based on our own family’s story, there’s a good chance you’ll notice positive changes in your kids – and even yourself – within days or weeks of these eliminations. And, really, all it takes is a little extra time reading labels.

We here at Mamas would love to hear your food related stories and testimonials! And please let us know what questions you have for Brooke Bernard about healthier food choices for kids! Send an email to

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Farrah April 18, 2012 at 9:19 am

Great post. Thanks for this- it all seems so overwhelming to deal with- when you don’t know specificially what to watch out for. I know I, for one, WANT to do a better job and make more informed choices for my boys- but it seems like there is so much conflicting or complicated language deterring me from investigating.


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

Hi, Farrah. It most certainly feels overwhelming to make these changes at first. It really does feel that way for everyone! I thought it was impossible at first. BUT, I was determined to overcome my fear and anxiety and embrace the feeling of empowerment that came with educating myself and helping my kids be healthy! I was angry that our food industry and government allows these toxins in OUR food while other countries are protecting their citizens! And now I want to make it easier for other families! If you read conflicting information, ask yourself what the source of that info is — or where the funding for the research came from. Our food industry is busy making sure our food is very “pretty” but not very “safe.” I feel comfortable saying that without a single doubt, synthetic food dye is not good for our children. If I can answer any specific questions or you’re looking for a replacement food for something your kids love, please feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help however I can. You can do this!


Rebecca V. April 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

Dear Brooke B,
Loved your extremely informative blog!!! Our household avoids all of the first 2 toxins you pointed out but in what types of products can we avoid BHA, BHT & TBHQ?!? I want to ensure my family is avoiding those toxins as well!!! I wish everyone in America could read this blog!!! We as Mom & Americans, should band together and boycott all products w/these toxic ingredients!!! This is AMERICA and we want our future generations to be Healthy, Strong, Intelligent and FREE of all man-made/manufactured diseases!!!
Rebecca V.


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 11:48 am

Hi, Rebecca! You are so right on when you mention boycotts. American consumers must speak with their wallets by buying products free of these toxins! If one mom tells another and she tells another and so on, we can change our food industry for the better.
BHT and TBHQ are sometimes on labels — it might say “Packaged with TBHQ for freshness” or something like that. For example, pre-packaged Chex Mix contains BHT; it’s on the label. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups also contain BHT. However, some foods use these products in the baking process and that is NOT required to be on the label. For example, a bread maker might line the baking pans with TBHQ… this can still absorb into the bread. If you notice your child having negative reactions after ingesting a food that seems safe, you can call the manufacturer and see if they’ll tell you if these petro-based chemicals are used. Another way to be sure your food is clear of these toxins is to order the Feingold Association’s materials. The Feingold Assoc. researches safe products every year and publishes a book of those products you can take with you to the store.


Jamie April 18, 2012 at 9:37 am

This was quite an interesting article, thanks for the info! I am not yet a parent, but would be interested in how these same foods effect a pregnant woman. I think I’m going to stock up on M&Ms when I am in London this Summer, all natural just sounds more delicious than Red 40 and Blue 1! Thanks!


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 11:42 am

Hi, Jamie! Thanks for your post! Absolutely, these chemicals have negative impacts on EVERYONE who consumes them, not just our kids. I would encourage pregnant women to eat as cleanly as possible during pregnancy. No developing human deserves to ingest petroleum!! Remember, just because we can’t always see the reaction, doesn’t mean the reaction isn’t there. Sometimes people see changes like these as difficult and think that because their kids can sit still in school or don’t have tantrums that the products are acceptable for them; that just couldn’t be further than the truth. Petroleum isn’t good for anyone.


Deirdre April 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

Great post, BUT my daughter is highly allergic to tree nuts. Most of the organic foods (except for the Enjoy Life brand) sold in our supermarket say “may contain tree nuts” or a similar warning label. I know we can find options, but it is soooo hard to find something that meets all our needs! I’m not giving up, I just wish there were more organic options available that are not made in facilities with nuts.


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 11:39 am

Oh, man. That is frustrating, Deirdre. My kids are also dairy free due to allergies, so we have an extra avoidance issue, too. I know that other countries are leaps and bounds above American manufacturers when it comes to food labels as well.
I do NOT do this but hope to get there someday: cooking and baking completely from scratch. If we started preparing foods the way our grandparents and great grandparents did — and kept meals and snacks ready in the freezer — this sort of thing would end up being less of an issue. I am just as guilty as the next person of thinking that stuff in my child’s lunchbox has to come in a wrapper — it’s so much “easier” that way.
Some friends recently told me that they are buying up cookbooks from the 50s and 60s to find true from scratch recipes. Maybe that’s something to try. People who do it SWEAR it doesn’t take that much more time.
I will keep an eye out for “clean” products not processed with tree nuts. Maybe that’s an entire blog post?! Thanks for reading.


Christy Z. April 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

Great article Brooke! I loved the line : “ironic how everyone recognizes that the chemicals in drugs impact our bodies but often believe that those same kinds of chemicals in food are harmless” SO TRUE!!! Keep up the awesome work! Your voice is making a difference.


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Thank you, Christy, for reading and taking a moment to post! I hope I AM making a difference!!


Kristy April 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I too LOVE that line. So simply stated with a such a huge impact. This article is wonderfully written. I have no doubt it will change the way families eat.


Traci Mae April 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Thanks for this, Brooke! I’ve recently discovered that my son also has a huge sensitivity to artificial food dyes (he turns into a completely different person– angry, scared, multi-hour screaming fits). He didn’t have a whole lot of artificial color to begin with because I had a come-to-Jesus moment about food and our food industry years ago, so it wasn’t hard to figure out what was different when he had his bad days. That said, it’s taken me 10 years to get where I am with my eating/cooking habits. So, hang in there for those who find this overwhelming. Do as much as you can manage now. Even little changes will help and once your start to feel better and see your kids feel better, you will be motivated to make more changes. A few things that I’ve found make “from scratch” living easier for a working mom: A good, BIG, slow cooker, plenty of glass or BPA free plastic storage containers, and a freezer. (Unfortunately, my freezer is tiny, but I have high hopes for more space in a future home). I’ve stopped buying canned beans because of the BPA lined cans and the salt. I buy bulk organic beans, cook them in the slow cooker while at work or during nap time on the weekends, and freeze them. Then you always have a cheap, healthy source of protein on hand with no chemicals or unnecessary salt. I’d love to hear others great “from scratch” tips. I am not by any means a strictly “from scratch” mom, but I’d like to do more.


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Tracie Mae: Your son’s reactions to dye are SO similar to my son’s. So scary. Love your idea of exchanging “made from scratch” ideas! Thanks for sharing your tips!


BrookeB April 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Um, sorry I spelled your name wrong. 🙂


Carrie Scanlan April 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Thank you Brooke for writing this. I would like to switch our family’s eating habits to healthy organic eating, but it is so overwhelming. I feel really good about using your suggestions as a start to healthier eating.


BrookeB April 19, 2012 at 7:51 am

You’re welcome, Carrie. One step or one change at a time is a great way to start. It is so overwhelming to find out the truths about our food industry. Take a breath when you feel that way. Feel empowered to do better for your kids! You are armed with information!


Kelly April 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm

We’re a dye free family going on 3 years now. We also try to avoid HFCS where we can. To anyone on the fence about trying to change your family’s eating habits I say to just try it for 5 days. Just 5 days and the difference you see in your children’s behavior will convince you to keep with it. It does get easier over time and more and more companies are starting to respond to consumer demand with healthier products.
Great article Brooke!


BrookeB April 19, 2012 at 7:52 am

Thanks for reading and posting, Kelly. The five day trial is a great tip; I believe everyone will see some kind of positive change.


Rebecca April 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

Thanks for this article. I still meet so many parents who had no idea about the problems with food dyes and HFCS. One of my readers posted this week on the DFD Facebook page about how China is ditching over a dozen artificial food dyes…CHINA. Where much of our artificial food coloring comes from. Just more proof that lobbyists are close to our government. Vote with your dollars!


BrookeB April 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

Thanks, Rebecca. I JUST heard about China banning the artificial dyes this morning. Trying to get my hands on an article about it; if you have one, please share! And thanks for reading!!


KRISTY WALKER April 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I live in Australia and we have the same problems. My oldest son is now turning 10 this year and I have known about this for that length of time. The book “The Chemical Maze” by Bill Statham is an excellent book for helping people to sift out the ‘nasties” in foods. Also natural colourings such as 160b and other numbers are extremely dangerous as they are natural colours. Cochineal is a red natural colouring that contains ‘crushed bugs’. Anyone for a ‘strawberry; milkshake? Also Aspartame 951, and Ribonucleotides 635 (related to MSG just worse) are in everything. Another good place for information is the website by Sue Dengate. Hope this helps. Kristy W


Dori April 20, 2012 at 7:44 am

Haha I was going to put Sue’s website on here as well and then saw your comment as I scrolled down. She has a lot of info for Americans and they have their own forum I think as well. Another good book is ‘Additive Alert’ by Julie Eady from Australia. All the best everyone in your quests to give your children a better life!


Julie Branstetter April 19, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Brooke, My name is Julie Branstetter and I am the senior writer and publisher @ The Natty Gambit. This is a great article! I would love to feature this article on my website. If I have your permission, I’d like to add it to the family page since it is the newest page, but I may add a link to it from my heath page as well. Let me know if this is something you wouldn’t mind. Thank you for the hard work you put into it!!


BrookeB April 24, 2012 at 10:35 am

Hi, Julie. You are welcome to link to this piece or add the piece and link back to Thanks!


Michelle April 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

My daughter has down syndrome. Two days before reading this I came to a decision to cut these things from her diet with a few other things. I am excited to see how it changes her behavior in school and at home. It is crazy how diet affects their body and behavior!


BrookeB April 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

I have no doubt making these changes will make positive differences for you, Michelle! Good luck and keep me posted.


Tessa April 19, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Loved this helpful article! Thank you. My son is 2, he
See a OT and ST for his speech delays and other little things. I’ve heard about this whole switching the diet and from changing just little things such as his milk, bubble bath, lotions it’s made such a huge impact. His vocabulary double, concentration came as well
As well as finally being able to point and follow commands. His OT see sensory issues and says he has a hard time transitioning from one thing to another. He has always been a bad sleeper but things are improving. Could you give some suggestions on some of the meals you make or snacks you give your children. My son is also a picky water so any ideas are appreciated! Thanks so mich


BrookeB April 24, 2012 at 10:39 am

Hi, Tessa. Here’s one article I wrote about what to eat and not to eat…
I am lucky my son enjoys snacks of raw fruit and veggie slices. He enjoys pretzel sticks, cereals (we like the Cascadian Farm brand a lot), homemade popsicles with 100% juice (you can even cut with water for less sugar) and more. If you’re looking for a specific product, let me know!


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