Which do you think has the most chemicals in it: your garage or your child’s Easter basket? The answer may surprise you, because brightly colored Easter candies are often full of synthetic food dyes and artificial flavorings.
Although these foods are colorful and fun, “parents and teachers alike attribute excessive motor activity and other disruptive behaviors to candy consumption,” cautions Anju Sharma, a pediatric dietitian with Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas. And, she adds, “There have been problems concerning the safety of some of these chemicals [additives and colorings], including the possibility of allergies.”
A growing body of research shows that many of these additives can trigger hyperactivity and inattention in children. When Harvard and Columbia University scientists analyzed 15 previous studies of hyperactive children, they concluded that artificial food colorings have a detrimental effect on children’s behavior and called for an “ambitious vigil against avoidable harmful exposures.”
“At the very least, regulators should track consumption of artificial food colorings; we know only that domestic production of food dyes quadrupled between 1955 and 1998,” warn the researchers.
Why the Uproar?
This dramatic increase in the use of synthetic food additives may be one reason for the surge in children’s hyperactivity and attention problems. Fifty years ago, when children did not eat multicolored cereals or drink blue sports beverages and teachers didn’t routinely give out brightly colored candies, hyperactivity was much less common.
Even more troubling, a recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet found that synthetic additives can have a negative impact on the behavior and concentration of any child — not just those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “These findings show that adverse effects are not just seen in children with extreme hyperactivity (i.e. ADHD), but can also be seen in the general population and across the range of severities of hyperactivity," according to the study.
Given synthetic additives’ harmful side effects, what should you put in your children’s Easter baskets? Parents have a wide range of natural Easter candies to choose from, including chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, lollipops, peanut butter kisses, chocolate mint patties, gummi bears and hard candies.
Whole Food and other organic grocers stock natural sweets without the disturbing additives and artificial colors, like Tiny Trapeze Confections. You’ll find other natural candies and many other brand-name foods that are free of unwanted additives on the Feingold Association’s Foodlist & Shopping Guide.
In addition to avoiding candies containing synthetic food dyes, such as Yellow 5 and Red 40, try to stay away from treats with artificial flavorings, the sweetener aspartame, and the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ, which have also been linked with behavior and learning problems.
The food industry uses preservatives like benzoic acid, among others, as antimicrobials, Sharma explains, and the BHA and BHT are used as artificial antioxidants. So, although science has come a long way, these preservatives still carry potential adverse effects, some we’re not even aware of yet.
Other Treats for Easter Morning
If you want to color Easter eggs, wear gloves to protect your hands from synthetic dyes and discourage your children from eating eggs if synthetic dyes have seeped through the shells. Also consider using brightly colored plastic Easter eggs or coloring boiled eggs with natural dyes. (Mix water and a dash of vinegar with naturally colorful ingredients like canned blueberries, instant coffee, cranberries or raspberries and soak eggs until desired color is achieved.) And, try small gifts like pens, sports cards, play dough or bubbles in the Easter basket.
Finally, try to feed your children breakfast before they indulge in Easter treats and plan an event such as an Easter egg hunt to help them work off excess energy and calories.
If you follow these simple steps, your children can have beautiful Easter baskets full of brightly colored and delicious natural treats, and you can enjoy a much more joyous day.
Jane Hersey is the director of the Feingold Association, a nonprofit organization that stresses a low-additive diet to manage children’s health and behavior. The organization is renowned for its research into foods and the connection between ingredients and kids’ health and development.