Fed up with artificial colors, fragrances and taste enhancers

Science is complicated.

Just because something happens at the same time as another thing or just after another thing does not mean one caused the other. Sometimes it does. But sometimes they are just two things happening at the same time. Correlation is not causation.

But when something happens only when (or much more intensely when) something else happened right before it in many different places and at many different times to many different subjects, then the first thing probably does in some way, direct or indirect, cause the second thing.

That is what is happening and being reported by parents all over the world when it comes to artificial food coloring, fragrances and taste boosters—food additives with those indecipherable names clogging the ingredients lists of most packaged foods. One thing happens (a child eats something containing these substances) and then another thing happens (the child shakes, cries, screams, throws extraordinary tantrums, breaks out in unaccustomed skin rashes or has other reactions). Parents have reported these observations again and again, in every parenting forum I have ever come across.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But medical studies claim the evidence is “inconclusive.”

Granted, the spectrum of substances suspected of causing reactions is broad and the reactions caused are diverse. And not all kids react. Kids with attention and sensory issues tend to react more… a lot more.

It is also difficult to differentiate the energetic boost delivered by sugar and other simple carbohydrates almost always contained in the same foods from the effects of other additives. Most studies have tried to separate the two. But we don’t actually know that it isn’t the combination of sugar and the additives that is a problem for these children.

Many of the substances used to create colors, fragrances and taste boosters have been progressively banned in more safety-conscious countries in Europe, usually due to vague neurological effects, but new ones—all too chemically similar—are continually being invented.

As a parent with one child with high sensitivity to food additives and another child without particular sensitivities, I can clearly see the differences. One child doesn’t make a study, but the experiences of thousands of parents routinely dismissed and belittled by the medical establishment make for a very suspicious situation.

Given the massive lobbying capabilities of the food industry and the extreme profits garnered by these cheap substances added to foods to make them instinctively addictive to children, I call foul. I have not seen adequate research and investigation into this area yet, but the past few weeks have lit a fire under me.

Due to various allergy-type reactions to milk and other foods, I had both of my children tested for all standard food allergies about a month ago. Both of them tested negative in every category. The test did not include a test for lactose intolerance, which isn’t actually an allergy. But as soon as I got my son lactose-free milk, his symptoms cleared up.

My confidence in the allergy testing system is shaky at best, if they aren’t even with it enough to refer a kid with allergy-type reactions to milk for a lactose intolerance screening. I have also seen my ten-year-old daughter collapse, screaming with shaking hands for two or three hours at a stretch after eating a moderate amount of green food coloring on several occasions. I’ve seen her exceptionally irritable and impulsive after eating everything from a single piece of candy to a few handfuls of fake-cheese-flavored chips.

Then just recently, in the month since the allergy testing, she acquired some much coveted children’s lipstick with chemically induced “cupcake” flavoring. She smeared it on liberally and by her own admission ingested a small amount. This was after a day of eating only very familiar foods, but after a few hours she was covered with extreme allergic eczema from her knees to the knuckles of her hands.

Fortunately, anti-allergenic mint salve (see the recipe here) stopped the itching within thirty minutes and cleared up the eczema in two days, a result the doctor proclaimed “miraculous.” Our pharmacist told me antihistamines generally soothe the itching within 24 hours and clear up that level of eczema in seven days.

(Caveat and disclaimer: There has not been enough study of mint extracts for eczema. There are few side effects reported, but skin rashes should be consulted with medical professionals. If your doctor agrees, mint salve might help. I have seen it help in many cases, but with other types of allergies it had no effect.)

The lack of rigorous research on the harmful affects of food and cosmetics additives continues to be problematic. This is not a difficult issue. There is no need to color foods or cosmetics or enhance fragrances or tastes. What if companies were forced to compete based on the actual basic quality of their product, plain and simple, rather than relying on manipulative manufactured substances?

How does a company making lipstick marketed specifically to young children get away with including heavy-duty fragrances and taste enhancers that make children obsessively want to eat a product that has not been tested as a food?

I am constantly under attack from these products. My kids beg for the products they see in advertisements on children’s TV shows or that their friends have. Other adults gift them to my children. The worst of them are very dangerous. But beyond that many of them are just damaging and hazardous to long-term health. Some sensitive children react to these harmful substances immediately. But that does not mean that they don’t still silently harm the health of less sensitive children as well. It is altogether possible that children with sensory and attention “disorders” are our canaries in a coal mine.

Because I want to protect my children from hazardous substances contained in most of the products on the supermarket shelves and I actually stand my ground on it, I am called an “extremist” or accused of having “extremely high standards.” These shouldn’t be considered high standards.

Just make food. Just make lip gloss. I can grow the ingredients and make both from my own home with no chemicals and they taste great and they last.

Substances must be thoroughly investigated, including long-term health and neurological effects, before being approved for food or cosmetics use. Even more fundamentally, there is no reason for substances which manipulate and deceive the senses. No manipulative or addictive product should ever be marketed to children.

It is not that I want to control what other people do. I don’t want them around me. I don’t want them invading my space. I don’t want to be pressured over them. I don’t want my children manipulated by them or given them by friends.

If it isn’t cupcakes, it shouldn’t taste and smell like cupcakes. Cupcake flavor and smell should be what it is—flour, sugar, butter, real strawberries, in season, brief and real. Period.

Tasty, beautiful, healing violets: Home Medicine Cycle 7

My daughter and I set out with our herb baskets to find violets the other day. They bloom a bit late in our climate, rarely emerging until the end of March and often lasting into May. Violets are shy and they often don't grow in large quantity but they are delicious and full of nutrients. You also don't have to feel bad about picking every one you find, because the purple violet blossoms of spring are not "true flowers" in that they don't produce the seed of the plant. Picking them actually helps the plant produce more.

As we walked along the weedy track behind our house we adapted this little ditty from a similar one in Herbal Roots magazine to the tune of the song Mulberry Bush.

O, violets sweet and shy, sweet and shy, sweet and shy.

O, violets sweet and shy, where shall we find you?

Violets with five irregular petals and heart-shaped leaves - image by H. Zell of Wikipedia

Violets with five irregular petals and heart-shaped leaves - image by H. Zell of Wikipedia

The question was meant quite seriously. My daughter had never been violet hunting before and I am legally blind, so I wasn't sure this was going to work. But as soon as we had sung the the song through one time we found a good patch of violets. We picked the flowers and leaves carefully, in order to get plenty of stem (important for making candied violets later) and to avoid harming the plant or pulling it up. 

We weren't able to find enough violets to make violet syrup for coughs and sore throats, as I'd hoped. But we did find enough to make candied violets and put some on a pretty spring salad. My daughter, who is six and has a sweet tooth, was surprised at how delicious violets are. I suppose being my kid, she's used to having to take some bitter herbal medicines. But violets are mild and sweet enough that even the pickiest kid should be happy to eat them on a salad and they are packed full of vitamins. 

We returned home after our expedition and decided to try a candied-violet recipe I had seen in several different places. My luck with trying strange recipes entirely from books isn't that great. I do better if someone experienced does it with me the first time. But I was desperate. As I said, my daughter has a sweet tooth. She also appears to have particularly severe form of the "food coloring reaction." I know there is a bit of controversy around this, but anyone who doesn't believe that food coloring causes strange reactions in kids only needs to be around my daughter once after she's had food coloring (or corn syrup or certain packaged foods like potato chips). Within a few hours, she will start to act increasingly impulsive and erratic until her frenzy climaxes, usually with her shaking and crying uncontrollably on my lap for a few hours.

The thing is that my daughter also loves pretty, flowery, fairy-like things and she desperately wants to have decorated cakes. I have been experimenting with natural food dies to make pretty cakes. I can make a pretty good pink frosting with beet or blackberry juice mixed into a cream cheese frosting, but it isn't as easy to mold and decorate as corn-syrup-based frosting with food coloring. And my daughter really, really, really wants colored flowers on cakes. Hence my motivation to try candied violets. 

We got everything out and sat down with some trepidation, and for once, the recipe went just as advertised. Here's the idea:

This may not look like a picture from a cookbook but it is my real first attempt. Not bad for a first attempt! They are pretty enough to satisfy my daughter's passionate love of decorated cakes and that is really all that matters.

This may not look like a picture from a cookbook but it is my real first attempt. Not bad for a first attempt! They are pretty enough to satisfy my daughter's passionate love of decorated cakes and that is really all that matters.

1. To prepare: Pick violet flowers with long stems. Beat an egg white. Cover a cookie sheet with wax paper. Buy or grind extra-fine sugar. This is the tricky part I think. Fine sugar is not the same as powdered sugar. Powdered sugar would probably turn your candied violets all white and you wouldn't be able to see their beautiful color. It also might not be enough to preserve them. You can buy extra-fine sugar or you can grind your own with a mortar and pestle from regular sugar.

2. Holding the stem of a violet, dip the bloom into the egg white. Use a clean paint brush to coat the flower entirely with egg white, on the front and back of every leaf. 

3. Dip the flower into a saucer of fine sugar and sprinkle more on top of it. Again, coat it well on all sides. 

4. Carefully arrange the blossom on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Use a toothpick to gently unfold the petals, so that the flower looks pretty. It will dry that way.

5. Put the cookie sheet full of candied flowers into the oven on the lowest setting (50 degrees Celsius or 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and let them dry for a couple of hours.  

6. Once the candied violets are entirely dry, save them in an airtight container. They are supposed to last quite awhile but they are better within a few weeks. The main thing is that they are a beautiful, natural alternative to harmful food coloring and corn syrup cake decorations. And they taste A LOT better. I was surprised to find that the flavor of the flower is very pleasant and noticeable through the sugar.

Violets can also be used medicinally as a syrup for coughs and sore throats. A warm compress of violets can be helpful on scrapes and bruises. Make a strong infusion (tea) and soak a clean cloth in it. Then put the cloth still warm, on the effected area. There are reports of fresh violet juice and strong infusions being used to effectively treat throat cancer. There are compounds in violets that may be helpful in fighting cancer, but this hasn't been tested enough. What we do know is that violets are edible. You can put them on salad to make it look beautiful, add delicious flavor and bring in a springtime shot of vitamins.