Print Print this Page

What Are All Those Funny Things in Foods?

Allergies and sensitivities are among the many things that can effect the way we behave.

November 7, 2008

By Jane Hersey, National Director, Feingold Association of the U.S

Allergies have only been recognized as a phenomenon for a little over a hundred years, but although virtually everyone knows about allergies, they typically don’t really understand them well. There is a growing awareness that some individuals can experience a life-threatening response to foods like peanuts or eggs, but most people still think of allergic reactions as watery eyes from exposure to pollen or pets. In reality, there are so many potential allergens and so many different reactions, it can seem like an overwhelming amount of information.

The late Ben Feingold, MD, a prominent pediatrician, allergist, and Chief of Allergy at Kaiser-Permanente’s Medical Center in San Francisco, believed: “any compound in existence, natural or synthetic, can induce an adverse reaction in an individual with the appropriate genetic profile. ”In other words, it’s possible to be allergic to or sensitive to virtually anything; and the reaction can take many different forms.

So, in addition to watery eyes and anaphylactic shock, there are countless other possible reactions; what’s more, the reaction might be seen as a physical symptom such as a headache or asthmatic attack, but it can also appear as a change in behavior, or a change in one’s ability to focus.

Our world is filled with food that contains potential allergens and toxins, water that is not ideal, and air that is not pure. So how do you decide what to avoid while you live in the real world? Dr. Feingold faced this question as he worked with patients at the allergy clinic. He created a hierarchy based on those things that seemed to be the worst offenders for the most people and which had little or no redeeming value.

Artificial food dyes – were at the top of his list since they serve no valuable purpose for the consumer and are used primarily to save money for the manufacturers by making food look better than it actually is. What’s more, they can be replaced with dyes made from natural ingredients. The synthetic chemical dyes are made from petroleum and are listed by their color plus number; for example: Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, etc.

Artificial flavorings – are the second group of additives to go. As with the dyes, synthetic chemicals used as flavorings offer benefits for the manufacturer but risk for the consumer. They can easily be replaced with real ingredients.

BHA, BHT and TBHQ are petroleum-based preservatives that have the ability to give food the appearance of being fresh when it is not. TBHQ allows restaurants to use the same frying oil over and over, keeping it at high temperatures for extended periods, without appearing to change.

Aspartame - In recent years, this synthetic sweetener aspartame has been added to the list of chemicals removed on the Feingold Program. It has been linked to an enormous number of harmful effects and serious health problems.

Aspirin and Natural Salicylates – These fall into a different category. Many common fruits, a few vegetables, and some other foods contain naturally occurring salicylates. They have many benefits for the consumer, but can be troublemakers since they contain a chemical similarity to the above additives. Dr. Feingold knew that some of the patients he treated were sensitive to aspirin and/or foods that contain naturally-occurring salicylates. People who react to strawberries, for example, are more likely to be reacting to the salicylates (aspirin-like chemicals) that occur naturally in the berries than to have a genuine allergic reaction.

He told patients to temporarily remove aspirin and the natural salicylates at the outset of their treatment; later they could reintroduce and test them, one at a time, for sensitivity. Meanwhile, other foods and medicines that are not high in salicylates may be used.

Today the non-profit Feingold Association continues this work, helping families to test and see if any of the above substances are triggering problems. While these additives/salicylates are certainly not the only things that can cause trouble, they are fairly simple to remove and replace with other things that are well tolerated.

Food or environmental allergies often become more apparent once a person has removed the unwanted additives. If milk makes a child whiny, but dyes make him wild, you probably won’t notice the whininess until the wildness is gone. Removing gluten and casein might be necessary to help the autistic child, but if the petro-chemicals are not removed as well, the results can be disappointing. Most of all, if a person’s body is having trouble handling something like wheat, milk or eggs, how on earth can they handle petroleum?

A Rude Awakening About Our Food

Like most of the families who volunteer with the Feingold Association, my introduction came when our family realized that those additives listed above were harming our family. They caused my husband’s painful migraine headaches and my daughter’s often irrational behavior. I had not considered that something in our everyday foods could be the culprit. After all, if an additive were harmful, wouldn’t the government ban it from use in foods?(I had a lot to learn!)

Food dyes have been around for a long time and I consumed them as a child. They colored the jelly beans I enjoyed at Easter, the Halloween candy corn, the Christmas candy canes, and those lollipops from the bank. And let’s not forget the maraschino cherry on the top of a banana split.But these were things I consumed occasionally; back in the 1940s and 1950s most products did not contain dyes. Toothpaste was white, applesauce was pale yellow and cereal was beige.If a child took medicine, it was not neon pink and bubblegum flavored. (Most kids did not need to take medicine frequently because problems like ear infections and childhood asthma were rare.)

In 1955 Americans consumed an average of 12 mg of food dye per day, but by 2007 that amount had climbed to 59 mg per day – an increase of nearly 500%! What’s more, the majority of dyes are used in products designed for children, so it’s likely that a child ingests much more than that today. 20 mg of dye is about enough to color one teaspoon of frosting, and it takes several teaspoons to frost a cupcake. Add some Kool-Aid or pink strawberry flavored milk, plus a Flintstone purple dinosaur and that bowl of multicolored Trix cereal the child consumed for breakfast, and you’re well on your way to the 300+ mg per day of dye that is commonly found in an American child’s diet. Recently, researchers in England showed that a dose of only 25 to 65 mg of dye brought on ADHD symptoms in most children, not only those with a previous diagnosis.

So it’s not surprising that Feingold Association volunteers routinely hear from parents who report remarkable changes in their child’s behavior and/or schoolwork after they ditch the dyes and the other unwanted additives. Once they learn that most of the dyes used in our food start out at petroleum refineries in China, it’s not hard to give them up. Fortunately, nearly every type of food that uses these petro-chemicals can also be found in a natural version.

Frito Lay makes a (delicious) natural version of Chee-tos with no yellow 5 or yellow 6, no artificial flavoring and no MSG (monosodium glutamate). Jelly Belly has come out with a natural version of their jelly beans, Sundrops is a natural alternative to M&Ms, many companies now offer chocolate without “vanillin” (fake vanilla flavor), and both natural food stores and health food sections of major supermarkets offer a big selection of natural candies, cookies, ice cream, as well as mixes and convenience foods of all types.

Our Kids

After more than 30 years of helping families, Feingold volunteers have received countless reports of children whose behavior and ability to focus have changed dramatically when they got rid of the additives; sometimes the changes have been apparent in a matter of days.

Annemarie writes: “I am writing to thank you for helping me change my son’s life. Before he started the Feingold diet his behavior was unpredictable, irrational and undesirable. Last year in pre-school he actually had to have an aid in school with him to guide him during transitions and to curb bad behavior that his teachers could not handle.

“I started him on the Feingold program over labor day weekend. The following Thursday we attended a birthday party. There was a balloon guy there making all sorts of characters out of balloons. My son waited patiently while sixteen other children received balloon animals before he finally got his. He never once spoke out or fidgeted or got bored and decided to do something else. He just sat there watching. This was the first sign of evidence that his dietary change had freed him to be the little boy I knew he was.

“He has been in school full-time since then and is flourishing. There have been no behavioral issues and his attention span has been above average for a five-year-old boy. His is reading, writing and learning Spanish. He is sweet and considerate and loveable.”

You can learn more about the Feingold Program and the families we help at our web site; and for some amazing facts about school food, see

Jane Hersey
National Director, Feingold Association of the U.S.
Author of Why Can't My Child Behave? and Healthier Food for Busy People

Discuss in the Project Allergy Forum