What is Annatto? A Natural Food Coloring Exposed

annatto, flower, health food

Have you heard of annatto? It is a red plant extract that is used as to color food, textiles and even body care products. Annatto comes from achiote shrub seeds, and is mainly used as a red food coloring. Produced in South America, achiote seeds have been used by tribes for centuries. It has many health benefits, which include reducing acid, killing bacteria, fighting free radicals, and lowering blood pressure. Traditionally, the crushed seeds of the achiote shrub are soaked in water. Ancient Mayans used it to color food. The Piura tribe makes a tea with it that is used topically to treat skin conditions.

Herb Wisdom claims that achiote leaves are "one of the richest sources of tocotrienols currently known." Tocotrienols limit the liver's ability to produce LDL cholesterol, the bad kind that clogs arteries. The site also claims that an astringent made from the achiote leaves can be used to make "a potent digestive aid." Those are big claims, and typing in "achiote leaves supplement" in your search engine proves that there is a market for it. However, it might not be the best food coloring around.  

Last month, a Naturally Savvy article recommended three natural food dyes to avoid, which included annatto. There is a reason why: annatto has been associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In 2009, Herbert L. Stein wrote a letter to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology concerning problems his wife had with "frequent bouts of diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating." While Stein and his wife traveled in Europe, the symptoms stopped. However, there was one time when they recurred: after she had a cup of coffee with a non-dairy creamer. The creamer was Coffee-mate. During the trip, Stein's wife used "only milk and cream."

After the couple returned home, Stein's wife stopped using Coffee-mate for 30 days, and found that she was free of all symptoms, but when she used it again, they returned. The symptoms also returned after she ate vanilla ice cream. Stein discovered that annatto was in both Coffee-mate and the vanilla ice cream. Stein reports in the letter that his wife is free of symptoms through "diligently reading food labels and constantly inquiring about the content of restaurant fare."

Why isn't annatto more closely monitored as a food coloring? An article in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology noted that "anything added to food that is natural or, in other words, grown from seed is not under careful scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)." That includes annatto, since it is a natural additive.

If you would like to avoid annatto as a food additive, consider avoiding the following the food products which Stein lists in his letter as containing annatto:

Yellow cheeses: American, Cheddar, and Velveeta

Most crackers

Almost all cereals

Wishbone Italian Dressing and other commercial dressings

Light-colored ice creams: vanilla, butter pecan, vanilla swirl, chocolate chip, vanilla fudge

Gourmet mustards

Some capsule medications and vitamins and minerals: both prescription and over-the-counter

Chicken bouillon cubes

Commercial potato salads

Sugar-free Jell-O

Crystallight mixes

Pam with butter

Cooked/roasted or barbecue chicken at grocery stores that are ready-to-eat

Butter (so always check labels)

Microwave and theater popcorn

Spreads for Italian, cheese or garlic bread, and prepared Italian bread

Powdered donuts

Photo Credit: Rinaldo W.

By Andrea Donsky| May 20, 2013
Categories:  Eat
Keywords:  EatFood and Drink

About the Author

Andrea Donsky

Andrea Donsky

Founder & Chief Passionista at NaturallySavvy.com. See my full bio here.

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