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Irritability, negativity, and uncontrollable tantrums in 3, 4, 5 year old...

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

I just had to post my story here because we have seen such a difference in my son's behavior since we eliminated all artificial additives about 2 weeks ago. He is 5 and was  having 1-3 tantrums a day. On the weekend leading up to our desperate attempt to try anything to improve it, he had had vanilla ice cream two days in a row, a blue and red popsicle from the ice cream truck, and salami sandwiches (among other things). Well, since starting this diet, we have discovered that he is highly sensitive to the preservative sodium benzoate, the color food dyes, the artificial flavor vanillin, and one "natural" color, annatto (which has been shown to make reactions in sensitive people as well).


Let me just say that before starting this diet, he was having daily tantrums, going into a state where he wanted something he couldn't have and just cried and yelled over and over again a mantra, "want the ball" or something like that, lasting from 10-25 minutes. He would get a very disturbed look in his eyes, would not respond to me trying to offer him a hug or anything positive, would follow me crying if I walked away, and only snapped out of it by something random finally getting through to him (like a water at the right time, or me changing the way I am approaching the tantrum). We had had way more than our fair share of tantrums for a couple of years -- I even posted here about a year and a half ago about whether his behavior was "normal". Up until now, it always was. If only I had known that there was an answer. People had mentioned foods being possible suspects, but it was overwhelming -- was it food dye, or gluten, or dairy? Or what? Where would I start? There was too much and I was not convinced it would work.


Well, after 2 years and things not improving, I did some research. Not only did I find several blog sites that discuss the issue of food dyes and artificial additives to our food, but also medical articles where scientists did a treatment control study and found that the children who got the food dyes showed more signs of hyperactivity. There is a lot of literature on these foods for kids with ADHD, because it exacerbates symptoms, but it is also true for the general population. We have long known that our kids go berzerk after having colorful candy, right?? In my family, we always thought it was the sugar that caused that. But, sugar was in other things that didn't cause him to go berzerk!


After finding so much medical literature supporting this being an actual issue, I decided to take the plunge and give it a try. On the first day, I screwed up (wanted to use up the last piece of bacon!) and gave him something with sodium benzoate. 20 minutes later, tantrum! ("I want the house...I want the house", screaming and crying, me saying he could ask me nicely and I could go get it, to get him to snap out of it, him not changing his approach, etc.). The next day, I gave him a yogurt with annatto in it. Within an hour, a tantrum. That afternoon, he wanted more (there was one left). Fine, I thought, let's see if it is really the annatto. Within 30 minutes, he had hit his brother (aggression is one of the possible symptoms). Something clicked-- I remembered that a frozen healthy kefir pop had triggered tantrums, and even investigated the ingredients to see why it could do that, when the yogurt version didn't (probugs kefir). At the time, I had seen that the pop had more sugar, and thought that was it. I checked the ingredients again, and saw that it has annatto, while the yogurt version does not. Wow! And, I remembered back to some epic tantrums, where he was so unreachable, for up to 30 minutes of screaming and crying, a disturbed look on his face, and I could trace back to something with food dye or vanillin flavoring to each instance. At the time, I thought it was chocolate! I had even posted here, could he be allergic to chocolate? Well, turns out, most of the cheap chocolate chips and drink flavorings contain the artificial vanillin. Wow.


After we fully eliminated it from his diet, we had 10 days straight of NO tantrums!! We saw an improvement almost immediately. Then, a few days in a row at preschool he came back and he was different again. I had packed his snacks but he had forgotten to get them. So, I asked the teachers -- turned out he had eaten a small square of Hershey's chocolate (vanillin), goldfish crackers (annatto), and a freeze-it color pop those few days! (Yikes, why are they giving so much crap, I wish I knew -- have been talking with director about changes, but not sure will get far). So, we had a test case and the bad behavior came back. He was grumpy when I picked him up, had a very short fuse, and had several tantrum incidents at home that week. I am looking forward to next week when we will be AWAY from preschool and entirely in control of his diet!!


I just wanted to share this story because I wish I had tried this diet sooner. If your kid has many more uncontrollable tantrums than you think is normal, give this a try! These artificial colors are made from PETROLEUM, and are in so much that we eat -- just check the food labels, and you will be shocked. They can make children aggressive, sensitive to falling apart (you know when they are on the brink, right?), can cause more typical allergic symptoms like eczema, and even neurological symptoms in some children. And, the medical literature has proven they are associated with more hyperactive behaviors in a preschool setting.

post #2 of 10
Thank you so much for posting this and giving other moms the opportunity consider how our children react to food.

I know you must read A LOT of labels. How do you shop now? What do you look for?
post #3 of 10
Thread Starter 

Here is a good list of things to avoid:



Also, search for the Feingold diet online as another starting point, they have a lot of information.


And what prompted me to start trying this... (the key for us was the inconsistency -- sugar/sweets did not always trigger the tantrums, only sometimes


post #4 of 10
I would add these to that list:
Brown rice syrup
Pure cane syrup

And any other syrup, as it is all sugar. It is one of the top ingredients in almost every cereal, flavored oatmeal packet, and granola/ granola bars, snack bars.
post #5 of 10
Thread Starter 
Let me just say that the whole point of this post is that it is not just the sugar. Sugar in and of itself, from natural sources, should not cause these behavioral problems.
post #6 of 10

Thanks for the reference to the Feingold diet, Porcelina. My daughter is very careful about what she eats (and what her 3 year old daughter eats) Reading food labels is such a learning experience. I shopped for groceries with my mom who didn't know that 'low fat' sour cream has ooodles of other stuff to give it texture. My impression is: just give me the food, and keep the other additives out!

It sounds like you have a huge success story happening! That's wonderful! 


I have a general question about tantrums, etc.: do you notice they occur at certain times of day? I have noticed, for example, when at the Mall at 4pm, all the babies and toddlers 'go off' at the same time. I've assumed it is a combination of hunger, fatigue, and missing a nap at mid-day. Same thing happens when kiddies are out after 7:30pm -- they are done with the day and ready for bath and bed! I know it isn't wise to generalize, but it seems to be so predictable. Pre-schoolers have limited resources to deal with missing a snack, and then taking a later than usual nap. Any thoughts? Is your Pre-schooler 5 or 6 years old? If the program doesn't allow for lots of playtime, boys seem to have less tolerance for sitting quietly and following the class. I held my son out of school until he was 6 1/2. Boy was I glad I did that!


Sorry to get off topic here; it's the tantrum part of small children's behavior that gets my attention. As a loving Oma for my grandaughter, I think her good nature is due to her mama being very careful to stick to a reasonable schedule of feedings and naps. Reasonable being; what works for her, and helps her avoid 'too much' of anything like hunger, fatigue, and over-stimulation.


Congratulations on finding the answer to your mystery! Now that you know the origins of his discomfort/distress, you are well on your way to success. Thanks for sharing your search with us. I am sure it will benefit many families.

post #7 of 10
Thread Starter 

Ocean_Swimmer, I totally agree with you that many families push their children too hard by not sticking to a schedule that works for their children, skipping naps, or keeping them up too late at night. Of course, some kids can go with the flow very easily; others not so well. My DS taught us at a very early age (back when we thought we could proceed with life as normal) that he would not stand for missing naps or being kept up our out past his bedtime. He would scream and cry and be very beside himself anytime we didn't follow his needs. So, we learned pretty early that he needed food every 2 hours or so and could not miss naps or go to bed too late. He was definitely a high needs baby. That is why it took us so long to figure out if dietary issues could help. All of his behavior was still within the realm of normal -- young children have tantrums, get upset, particularly if they are hungry or tired. Sure, even kids on the most natural diet will have tantrums when they are 2-3 and even 4 when they are hungry/tired or something else is going on in the background. But, by the time they are 5, or 6 (my son is 5), these should be fewer and tamer. This is when I finally realized that maybe it was something else.


Looking back, I can link the epic tantrums to eating food with vanillin or color. There were tantrums, and then there were tantrums, the ones that lasted for 40 minutes, where he was unreachable, wouldn't respond to any approach. He might have had more "normal" tantrum in the same circumstance, if he hadn't eaten the offending food additive, who knows. All I know is that things have improved a ton!


Interestingly, we just went out for pancakes for dinner the other night. I knew this was going to be a "challenge", as the food would surely have something artificial in it. Well, he first had the hyperactivity 15 minutes after eating, and then lapsed into a tantrum another 15 minutes later, and was irritable for the next hour and a half until he fell asleep (by irritable, I mean just whining randomly, on the verge of getting upset). But, what was most interesting was that, for the first time, I noticed an effect in myself. I was irritable. His whining was driving me crazy! And I felt a bit light-headed, almost headachy. I also felt wired. This lasted about 2.5 hours. I'm quite certain that what affected us must have been artificial flavors in the pancake syrup (and who knows what else). But, for the first time, I realized I probably get affected by this stuff too! Any other day, I would have just thought I had a headache, but I am pretty sure it can be linked to what we ate.

post #8 of 10

Hi Porcelena,

Thank you for filling in the details and especially drawing attention back to the fact that your son is 5. You're right, it would seem odd, especially since the behavior occurred so soon after eating foods containing the additives you identified. I'm impressed with your attention to detail, which might be overlooked in many other similarly-affected children (and adults!)


The only similar situation for me was when, many many years ago, I noticed my 2nd child (my eldest daughter) having terrible colic after I consumed oranges, tomatoes, anything fried, oily, or otherwise 'acidic' -- like spaghetti sauce. This was when she was about 2 months old. I removed the offending items from my diet, and 'bingo' --- she was fine. I eventually altered my diet (while she breastfed) to what we jokingly referred to as my 'caveman diet': fresh ripe fruits (except oranges, grapefruit, or tomatoes,etc.) grilled or barbequed meats, baked veggies or breads, lettuces and salads without dressing....whole grains, and I forget what else (like I said, it's been a long time!) The result was a complete absence of colic for the rest of her breastfeeding 'career' -- over 2 years!


Thank you so much for sharing this topic of artificial additives and the relationship between them and children's sensitivity to them. My daughter is expecting baby number 2 in December, and I will share this with her. I think you're onto something we might encounter more and more in the future, UNLESS word gets out. This online forum is an excellent medium, as it is read by so many.

May you and your family continue to thrive and be happy!

post #9 of 10

We took our son off gluten and I am no longer grumpy (and he is a new kid.)

post #10 of 10

Thanks so much for coming "back" to share your journey!!  I often think of the ways that NFL/"AP"/Mothering has helped me make connections and a I seem to always forget to post here. Thanks for remembering! 

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