Saturday, 1 November 2014

Annatto Food Colour and Allergy Symptoms

Some people think that natural food additives are always safe. This isn't necessarily true, however. Annatto is a natural food colour that causes an allergic reaction in some people. It's obtained from the covering around the seeds of the achiote tree, which grows in tropical and subtropical climates in South America. In some areas the local people call the tree the 'lipstick tree" because of the vibrant colour produced by its seeds.
Achiote seeds; photo by Leonardo Re-Jorge,
via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 License

Achiote seeds look red, but annatto produces a yellow to orange colour when diluted in food. It's often added to cheese, butter, custard powder, breakfast cereals and snack foods, such as crackers. Annatto is used as a flavouring agent as well as a colour. It's said to provide an earthy and peppery taste.

Although some people report many unpleasant symptoms after eating annatto, only some of these symptoms have been linked to annatto in research projects. Possible effects of annatto ingestion include urticaria, angioedema and irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Urticaria is the technical name for hives, which are red, itchy bumps that appear on the skin. Angioedema is swelling under the skin. IBS is a condition in which the large intestine is abnormally sensitive, resulting in frequent diarrhea or constipation.

The good news is that annatto isn't one of the eight leading allergens. These are soy, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat, fish and shellfish. An annatto allergy seems to be relatively uncommon, although this observation may be the result of insufficient research.

Annatto use is growing, since it allows processed food manufacturers to claim that their food contains natural colours. For many consumers the choose of additives is simple - natural is good, artificial is bad. Unfortunately the situation isn't this simple. An allergy to a natural substance is significant in some people.

Orange and yellow cheese often contains annatto
food colouring. Photo by gracey at
A person should never experiment with their diet if they have a major food allergy that produces life-threatening symptoms such as anaphylaxis. This condition is a severe allergic reaction that causes widespread effects throughout the body. These may include generalized hives and angioedema, difficulty in breathing and low blood pressure. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Someone with a serious food allergy must follow their doctor's advice.

If someone has milder symptoms and is trying to figure out what is causing them, though, it may be worth avoiding annatto for a while to see if the symptoms disappear. It would be a shame if a person stopped eating a food that is causing unpleasant symptoms, such as cheese, when the annatto colouring is causing the problem instead of the cheese itself.