The Great Food Experiment

Recently, we (my wife and I) decided to make some changes in our (the family’s) diet. Mostly, we were looking at taking out artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. We found the Fiengold Diet to be very helpful, and we have been using their information.

Now, you might be wondering what this is all about. Mostly, we wanted to see if taking out the artificial stuff would help us overall. Maybe help the intestinal issues that the middle child was having, and help out with the youngest’s autism.

Personally, I wanted to know more about what we were taking out. Yeah, artificial flavors and colors could possibly seem obvious, but what about caramel color? Why is that included in the list, and what about this sodium benzoate we see in so many soft drinks?

Caramel Color
Whenever I hear caramel color, I think of caramels, the candy. Well, get that image right out of your head. The only thing that caramel color and caramels have in common is that sugar is an ingredient. If you are making caramels, you simply heat up sugar until it starts to “cook,” in that the sugar breaks down to ‘invert’ sugar, and then starting bonding to each other in 3D shapes (this is called polymerizing). However, when you are done, you still have a lot of sugar in the end product.

If you are making caramel color, you need to make sure that all of the sugar becomes invert, and then you need to make sure that all of those then polymerize, without any leftover sugar, or invert sugar. For this, you will need help in both steps. For breaking down the sugar, you use an acid, such as acetic, citric, lactic, or phosphoric acid, and then you need sulfite, or ammonia, or both, to polymerize the result.

So, to recap how you get caramel color, you take sugar, mix it with an acid, then heat that up and add sulfite and ammonia. Voila! Caramel color.

For some reason, I don’t really care all that much for sulfite and ammonia, and don’t really care to consume any. Just to clarify, there are actually 4 classes of caramel color:


  • Class I uses only heat and “food-grade acids or bases” to make the caramel color
  • Class II uses sulfite compounds with or without acids or bases
  • Class III uses ammonia compounds with or without acids or bases
  • Class IV (most common) uses both sulfite and ammonia compounds, with our without acids or bases

So, the example I used, using an acid and with both sulfite and ammonia compounds, is the most common type of caramel coloring produced. As a nifty side note, it is interesting to know that when you read “caramel coloring” as an ingredient, no one is required to say which class it is.

Also, the information about classes, and which is the most common, comes from the Sethness Caramel Color company’s FAQ page.

For us, at least for myself and our son, our reaction to caramel coloring is a mild “twitchiness.” Imagine stereotypical hyperactivity, with twitchy and jerky actions, and jumpiness, normally occurring soon after ingestion of foods with caramel coloring.

Sodium Benzoate
Oh where to start with sodium benzoate. First, it has been known since 1990 that sodium benzoate + ascorbic acid (aka: Vitamin C) + time + heat = benzene. Later, research by professor Peter Piper of the University of Sheffield (please don’t make fun of his name), found that sodium benzoate can damage mitochondria of cells. See here, and here. Then, research in 2004, and further research in 2007, found that drinks with sodium benzoate and colors cause an increase in hyperactive behavior noted by teachers and parents, and computerized attention tests for older children.

For our son and myself, sodium benzoate causes sleepiness and lethargy, normally a few hours after exposure.

The diet
Now we have taken out the colorings, the additives, and preservatives. We still have some preservatives, such as nitrites in meats, because it is pretty much impossible to purchase meat without them; unless you know a local butcher who gets his meat from a local rancher and/or farmer.

Overall, we are doing better. My son has shown improvement in his speaking and being able to interact with others. I am even feeling better myself. We have had to remove milk because that was causing the intestinal problems of our middle child. However, we have been able to cope and are doing nicely.

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