What is Annatto? A Natural Food Coloring Exposed

What is Annatto? A Natural Food Coloring Exposed
What is Annatto? A Natural Food Coloring Exposed

Have you heard of Annatto? It is a red plant extract that is used to color food, textiles, and even body care products. Annatto extract comes from achiote shrub seeds and is mainly used as a red food coloring, which is why ‘annatto color’ and ‘annatto coloring’ is something that people are often interested in.

Where does Annatto come from?

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.

Is Annatto safe?

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 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."

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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 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
  • Crystal light 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

Read This Next: Make Your Own Food Coloring and Skip the Artificial Colors


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Andrea Donsky, RHN
Andrea Donsky, B. COMM is an international TV Health Expert, Best Selling Author, Nutritionist Podcast Host, and Founder of NaturallySavvy.com—a recipient of Healthline’s Best Healthy Living Blogs for 2019. As a pioneer and visionary in the health food industry, Andrea’s passion is to inspire people to make healthier choices. Andrea has combined her background and expertise as both a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and an entrepreneur ("She Boss!") to educate the public on living a healthy lifestyle through the creation of her businesses, books, articles, podcasts, videos, talks, and TV and radio media appearances. Andrea founded Naturally Savvy Media Inc. in 2007 in order to share her passion for healthy living, and love for natural products and companies. Among her numerous publications, Andrea co-authored Unjunk your Junk Food published by Simon and Schuster, a book that journalist, author and mother Maria Shriver endorsed: “Unjunk Your Junk Food has certainly made me more aware about the food that my children eat and the effects it has on our body and mind."</P. Andrea also co-authored two e-books entitled Label Lessons: Your Guide To A Healthy Shopping Cart, and Label Lessons: Unjunk Your Kid’s Lunch Box.