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Growing up, Lesley Marshall’s lunchbox wasn’t full of the typical snack foods you’d expect of a kid in the ’90s.
“[Instead of] Twinkies [I was] getting like, homemade oatmeal cookies,” she recalls, adding that at the time, that was a disappointment.
Marshall’s mother, Marian Boyer is allergic to tartrazine, a chemical compound used in many processed foods, medications and cosmetic products to give it a yellow or orange colouring.
The dye causes Boyer to break out in itchy hives and have trouble breathing.
Despite its impact on her daily life, Marshall says her mom never really thought of her allergy as a big deal — and neither did Marshall.
But as she got older and mentioned it to friends, she realized a lot of people had no idea what tartrazine was or that people could be allergic to it, which was a surprise to her, since it’s in a lot of things.
“It is life-threatening,” she said. “I just feel like more people need to know about it.”
She decided to explore the allergy and its impact on her growing up in a video for CBC Ottawa’s Creator Network.
Boyer says learning of her allergy was a shock, because for most of her early life, she believed the reaction was caused by eggs.
It wasn’t until she suffered an allergic reaction to Aspirin during her pregnancy with Marshall that she sought out an allergist, who told her “right away even before he did the testing, ‘I know what you have.'”
Boyer’s first thought after, “great, I can have eggs, wait until my mother finds out!” was to figure out what exactly she was supposed to be avoiding instead.
Back then, food basics like butter, condiments, cheeses and pantry staples like soups and sauces all included the dye.
This made both shopping for her family and eating out a challenge for Boyer, especially since she found that companies would not always display the word tartrazine on their ingredient list, instead including simply “colour.”
“We didn’t have a lot of money and we had a lot of cheap food,” she said, which meant that their family made more food from scratch.
Now, regulations ensure processed foods must list tartrazine on their labels. And, Boyer’s noticed that fewer products today seem to include the colouring.
Still, she says it’s not possible to avoid the chemical entirely.
“If you eat out or if you eat at somebody’s house and you tell them ‘I can’t have food dye,’ they look at you like ‘how am I going to avoid that?'” she said.
Apollinaire Tsopmo, a professor of food science and nutrition at Carleton University, has looked into the history of tartrazine.
He says though it was invented in the 1800s, the chemical wasn’t approved for use in food until the 1960s, when it became widely used to help in marketing products.
“Initially [it was used] to preserve the [colours of certain foods] but over time it has evolved to make food look more appealing,” he explained.
Tsopmo says fewer manufacturers now include the dye in their products because people are more concerned about health risks associated with processed foods.
He explained that though Health Canada allows tartrazine in foods when labelled clearly, other countries like Norway do not permit it.
“More and more consumers don’t want artificial colour in their food because of all the side effects that they may have,” he said, adding natural colourants like carotene can be used to replace tartrazine.
Marshall is one of those consumers.
“I’m a mom now myself and I like to have healthy food for my child,” she explained, adding that though checking labels for the dye is second-nature to her now, it’s not a habit she wants to impart to her child.
While Marshall said she was sometimes frustrated as a kid not being able to access popular snack foods, in retrospect, it was a sacrifice she’s happy she made.
“It really did teach me a lot about food, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Marshall hopes Canada will consider joining countries like Norway in banning the food colour.
“I just find it kind of unusual that something that is harmful is being served to the general public,” she said, adding that she’s particularly concerned about the impact on low-income communities who might not be able to afford to choose foods without the dye.
“There’s so many other ways to make food look pretty, if we must,” she said.
“But must we? You know, at what cost?”