Over 28 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches. Migraines are a severe, chronic neurological condition involving painful headache and other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and light sensitivity.
The cause of migraines aren’t fully understood but many migraine sufferers identify specific triggers such as allergic reactions, specific odors or bright lights, stress, sleep pattern changes, smoking, menstrual cycle fluctuations and certain foods and food additives.
Various studies indicate that anywhere from 20% to 44% of migraines are triggered by specific foods or beverages. Common culprits are MSG (monosodium glutamate) sodium nitrite, aspartame and food dyes such as Yellow and Red food colorings.
What Is Food Dye?
Each year the U.S. produces 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes which land directly into our food to enhance its appearance. Dyes add zero nutritional value but are a cheaper way to obtain that bright, stable color in food making it more aesthetically pleasing. Processed food in particular requires the use of additives and food dyes. Generally speaking, the more highly processed the food, the more food dyes are needed.
The FDA has approved seven food dyes for use in the U.S. These include: Yellow #5 (Tartrazine or E102), Yellow #6 (E110 or Sunset Yellow), Blue #1 (E133), Blue #2 (Indigotine or E132), Green #3 (Fast Green or E143), Red #40 (Allura Red AC or E129) and Red # 3 (Erythrosine, E 127).
Where Does Food Dye Lurk?
Food dyes can be found in candies, ice cream, potato chips and some sodas. Yet avoiding junk food does not fully avoid the issue. Dyes can also be found in pickles, American cheese, boxed macaroni and cheese, crackers, jams, lemonade, sports drinks, cereal, cereal bars, and condiments along with self-care products like shampoos, medications, mouthwashes and toothpastes.
Why Be Concerned?
Artificial food dyes are derived from petroleum, the same ingredient used to make motor oil. Many consumers are concerned about health risks from exposure to food dyes, particularly in foods and beverages marketed to children. Food dye allergies and sensitivities are medically documented. This prompted the Code of Federal Regulations to issue a statement in 2013 that dyes such as Yellow #5 must include a warning statement of possible allergic reactions.
Several food dyes still used and defended as safe in the U.S. have been banned in Austria, Norway, Sweden and France and contain label warnings in many European countries.
Food Dyes And Migraines
Migraine sufferers want to know how to prevent their pain so they are often very proactive in identifying their migraine triggers. Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast, universal triggers for migraines. Each migraine trigger will be unique and the journey toward understanding migraine triggers very personalized.
Several foods and food additives are associated with migraine triggers, though research is still inconclusive to date. Yellow and Red food dye have been fingered as possible culprits.
Identifying Migraine Triggers
The best advice is to research all possible triggers and then determine if some, or any, are triggering your migraines.
- Keep a Migraine Journal. This should include a detailed description of your migraine attack including what you were doing and eating up to 14 hours prior.
- Conduct a Controlled Elimination Diet. Eat the food in question in isolation, wait to see if there is a reaction, and repeat. Journal all of your experiences.
Tips For Eliminating Food Dye
If you suspect food dyes are triggering your migraines, eliminating them is simple once you are educated on label reading. Even if your migraines don’t appear to be triggered by food dye, one fact remains – food dyes add no health value to your diet and are typically found in processed food that has limited to no nutritional value.
Try these tips for eliminating or reducing food dye consumption in your home:
- Wean off of processed food. The rule of thumb is to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store.
- Become more food label conscious. Educate yourself on the ingredients to avoid.
- Fresh fruits are always better than canned or jarred.
- When baking, opt for natural food colorings to add some pizazz to cakes and icings. For example, substitute chloropyll to make green, beet powder to make red or pink, cocoa powder for brown and tumeric powder for yellow.
- Choose foods with natural rather than artificial colors. Any ingredient with a number in it should be absolutely avoided. Look for natural food colorings ingredients such as annatto extract, beta-carotene, beet powder, paprika, saffron, turmeric and vegetable juice.
- For treats and holidays, try dye-free candies like those sold by NaturalCandyStore.com, YummyEarth.com or Unreal Candy.
- Don’t try to save money by purchasing lower quality foods. Always invest in good health.
by: Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D.
Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. is a freelance writer with a doctorate in psychology. Her personal essays and parenting articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four girls, one of whom has extensive special needs. She can be found writing about her adventures in parenting at her blog, Lost In Holland.
- Harvard Health Blog: Food and migraine: a personal connection by Christine Junge, 2011.