Food · Food additives

What is Annatto and why is it in my food?

So you’ve removed all the food dyes from your family’s diet, but you still see strange ingredients listed on the back of foods? Things like turmeric, caramel coloring, carmine and annatto? What are all these ingredients and should you be concerned?


Let’s address one of the most common –  annatto or annatto extract as it’s sometimes listed as. It comes from that pretty flower in the picture above. But if you’re dye free is it something you should be concerned with? It depends. Let’s read a bit about what exactly annatto is and a brief history of why it’s used in foods today.

What is annatto? Turns out it’s a flavoring or coloring made from the seeds of the achiote tree. This tree is native to Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It’s been around since the 16th century where it was first used by ancient Mayans as body paint because of its brilliant color. It’s often called the lipstick plant because of the vibrant red color it has when broken apart.

It’s hard to trace back exactly to the first time annatto was used in food, but it seems that use too started somewhere around the 16th century. Many Latin American, Jamaican and Filipino cultures have long used it in their food in place of saffron. One of the more common food items today that we see annatto in is cheese. For over 600 years, producers of Gloucester cheese have been using it as a coloring agent to mimic the orange color that some of the better cheesemakers were able to obtain.

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On the surface annatto doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, right? In fact, it has many beneficial health properties. Studies have shown that it helps reduce acid, kills bacteria, lowers blood pressure and even fights free radicals.

The flipside of annatto is that even though it’s a natural food color, there is a portion of the population that reacts to it just as they would react to artificial food dyes. People have reported having severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome-like symptoms and allergic reactions such as hives, hyperactivity, mood changes, diarrhea, disturbed sleep, and many other symptoms too numerous to list here.

Annals of Allergy reported a patient suffered from symptoms like hives, swelling and low blood pressure just 20 minutes after eating a type of cereal that contained annatto dye.

My kids react to annatto at times and because so many companies are moving away from using artificial food dyes, annatto is becoming more common in foods. My kids get the same symptoms they get with artificial food dyes, i.e. hyperactivity, defiance, aggressiveness and bouts of crying. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “Twenty-six percent of the patients reacted to this color four hours after intake, worse than amaranth (9%) or synthetic dyes such as tartrazine (11%), Sunset Yellow FCF (17%), Food Red 17 (16%), Ponceau 4R (15%), erythrosine (12%) and Brilliant Blue FCF (14%).”

It’s also good to note that since it’s still unclear whether or not annatto is actually a seed, nut or a fruit, it has been linked to anaphylaxis . There have been definite reports of people with nut allergies having reactions to annatto. If you or your child has a nut allergy, it would definitely benefit you to speak with your allergist about annatto.

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Just to show you how common annatto has become in our mainstream food supply, here’s a brief list of food items I found in my kitchen that contain annatto….

Yellow Cheeses


Salad dressing






Other items include:

Packaged muffins

Packaged noodles and rice mixes

Velveeta products

Butter products

Ice cream

Microwave popcorn

Of course, there are thousands of other foods that have annatto in them, but these are some of the more common food items you might see in your kitchen.

The bottom line to me is, if your child reacts to artificial food dyes, it’s a pretty safe assumption that they might react to annatto as well, especially if they already have nut allergies.



One thought on “What is Annatto and why is it in my food?

  1. Annatto has sent me to the hospital SO many times before I figured out I was allergic to it. I think it’s the white whale for people who can say, eat white cheese, but not yellow. The can drink regular milk, but not flavored, reduced, or lactose free milk. They can eat soybeans, but not drink soymilk.
    They are left scared and confused to eat by this. I lost 30lbs in two months from fear of going back to the hospital YET AGAIN, where they just thought I was crazy…until I brought in snacks containing annatto, and hurt myself dearly to prove it.
    Causes ibs , anger, children bang their heads, personality changes, etc. My throat closes and lips swell, my entire face becomes rashy and painful. This lasts for days if untreated. The worst though?
    My behavior. Vitriolic, hateful, and combative.
    Think of what this does to children, and parents are pumping them full of pills because of their ‘behavior problems’, when a dietary adjustment is needed instead.
    Companies know, too. They’ve started labeling it as ‘natural flavor’ ‘natural coloring’ or ‘color added’
    Disgusting. Annatto and carmine are my top avoided ingredients.
    Too much anger in the world? It’s the food!
    I love the ‘defenders’ of anything natural, too.
    Cyanide is ‘all natural’ as well, you gonna chow down on that? Maybe you should.
    Is it really too much to ask to use simple beta carotene as a color? Really? Instead, a highly questionable plant no one has ever heard of is used, with almost no data available to the public on its effects?
    Criminal, truly.

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