Artificial Food Dyes and Toddler Aggression

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I love being a mom to my 2-year old son. The name of this blog is the Food Tracking Momma and although I mostly write about counting and logging calories to lose weight, I don’t want to lose the “momma” aspect of this blog. So today I wanted to share my family’s struggles with finding the source of my son’s dramatic mood swings and early signs of ADHD. After months of trials, my husband and I found that artificial food dyes were the source of his behaviors.

Food Tracking Momma Extreme Toddler Aggression and Mood Swings with Artificial Food Dyes

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We adopted our son when he was 15-days old. This was an open, family adoption so we knew the history of his birth parents very well. Both of his birth parents struggled with severe ADHD. Subsequently, we committed to provide our son with a calm, stable home. My husband and I aren’t perfect (far from it), but we are older parents who are committed to loving our son as much as possible. We believe in the mantra, “A calm home produces calm children.”

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Observed Behaviors

We started seeing problems around his second birthday. He was so moody! At first, we attributed his mood swings to the “terrible twos” and just kept on going. Then around 2 ½ he began manifesting extreme behavior swings. He was often such a gentle, go-lucky kid. But for no apparent reason he would become an angry, aggressive toddler who was unable to sit still.

We mostly recognized the behavior swings when he would take a nap. We never knew which personality would wake up. In fact, we started to jokingly call the aggressive personality, “Mr. Hyde.”

The number one symptom was aggression. For instance, he would hit and bite and would just be mean. The other main symptom is what we called, “Ants in his pants.” He couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t focus on anything. In the early stages we joked that he would “lose his mind.” But near the height of these problems, the appearance of “Mr. Hyde” was far from funny.

Food Sensitivity

Because of the dramatic mood swings, we began to consider an environmental source of the problem. He would have eaten breakfast and lunch before his nap, so we started to suspect that some type of food sensitivity was the cause. We were able to narrow this down because he almost never presented with aggression after waking in the morning.

To begin with, we removed sugar from his diet. It seemed logical that a ‘sugar high’ or a sensitivity to sugar could cause these behaviors. We saw some improvement and so we told family, church, and sitters to not give him anything with sugar. But there were still inconsistencies. First, he would still occasionally present with the symptoms. Second, he never reacted to any natural sugars (like those found in fruits). And third, his Grandma would give him homemade cookies and he didn’t have a reaction.

We decided to let him participate in the Halloween Trunk or Treat at our church, with the thought that we would only give one candy a day from his stash. I am a lover of chocolate, so I tended to give him the candy that I liked (chocolate, miniature candy bars) and he didn’t react. This continued for several days after the Trunk or Treat.

Artificial Food Dyes

Everything changed the night we gave him a Jolly Rancher candy from his Halloween stash. He had been great all day and we decided it would be fun to sit down and watch a movie as a family. That night I gave him a single, blue Jolly Rancher’s hard candy. We were sitting together when we saw the change in him. He literally transformed right in front of us. He began to hit the dog, hit us, and hit his head on the carpet. This was not in reaction to anything or having a fit. He just started to be aggressive. He then started to have to move around and climbed on top of an end table and then on top of the couch. He became defiant and extremely aggressive. And he couldn’t stop moving.

We were in shock, but we knew immediately he was reacting to that piece of candy. The candy had the following artificial food colors: Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. From that moment on, we removed all artificial food dyes from his diet.

Life Without Food Dyes

The result of removing the dyes is dramatic. It has been four months and he no longer exhibits aggressive, ADHD-like behaviors. We have stabilized his moods and things are much better.

Our little guy is still a toddler. He is still easily prone to a fit and will get mad just as quick as any other toddler. The toddler temper and fits don’t bother us too much- this too shall pass. But we are thankful that his aggression and ADHD-type behaviors are gone.

Since removing the food dyes, he’s only had three episodes of the Mr. Hyde behaviors, each time when we’ve messed up and accidently given him an artificial color (our little guy even reacted to caramel color). But life is so much better knowing that our little guy is navigating toddlerhood in a much healthier way.

Learning to Remove Artificial Food Dyes

It has not been that difficult to remove food dyes from our diet. It just takes a little bit of time and effort. Some dyes are very easy to spot. If a processed food has color, we generally don’t eat it. When I buy a new food item, I always inspect the ingredients to see if there are any artificial colors listed. They are easy to spot because they are usually one of the last ingredients, and they have a number listed after the color. We’ve found them in surprising food items, like ketchup, cream cheese frosting and snack crackers.

Eating out at restaurants is a little trickier. If you suspect the restaurant is using processed foods (and most do), then you must ask before ordering.

Medical Guidance

When we were in the height of these behaviors, we did consult with his pediatrician. His pediatrician has over 20 years’ experience in a busy practice. Yet he never helped us discover the problem. He only stated that it was good we were limiting sugar, because kids shouldn’t have much sugar anyway.


To any parent who is struggling with toddler behaviors that are too extreme to be overlooked, I would recommend you remove all artificial food dyes. The change in my son has been so dramatic, that I want to help spread the word that artificial food dyes are impacting children’s behaviors. Take some time to search the Internet for “Red 40 ADHD”. Educate yourself.

The good news is, consumers are driving the food industry to remove artificial colors from products. But because the FDA continues to approve the artificial food dyes, it’s up to individual companies to remove it themselves. Kraft has removed artificial food dyes from its macaroni and cheese, and Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins has removed artificial dyes (effective at the end of 2018). I expect more companies will follow this trend as consumer refuse to buy products that contain artificial food dyes.

You are the expert when it comes to your child. You know what is normal (for them) and what is abnormal. Be your child’s advocate. Be willing to remove environmental causes if you suspect it. And never give up! As we stumbled upon the source of my toddler’s mood swings, so I pray you will also.

Thanks, Andrea
The Food Tracking Momma

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2 thoughts on “Artificial Food Dyes and Toddler Aggression”

  1. Hi there , what a helpful post. My son struggles with mood swings and not comprehending sometimes. We are vegan so a lot of products use natural food dyes but I need to go though his favorite snacks to make sure. I have heard about this affecting children’s behavior but until I read you post it never it home with me. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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