I was surprised recently to discover that a popular brand of frozen fries uses food colouring – natural colour annatto. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about ‘natural’ when it’s marketing products despite how ambiguous it is; nature is full of things, from lions to mushrooms, that will kill us with ease.
What is annatto?
Pungent red seeds from the annatto tree are used to provide a golden colour and tangy flavour in many processed foods; it can also be used as a colouring agent in cosmetics. This colouring is often referred to as natural colour (annatto), annatto extract, or colour E160b.
They are also used in Mexican, Latin, and Carribbean cooking as a culinary spice, to make achiote oil, and to make adobe paste.
What are its benefits?
The seeds have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years in Caribbean and Latin American cultures. It’s believed that they can have a number of benefits including helping digestion, eye health, bone health, and aging.
Why should I be concerned?
Annatto as a colouring agent can have just as much of an adverse effect on children as artificial food colours. As a parent you might keep a watchful eye to see if artificial red colouring will make your child hyperactive but most of us won’t be aware that a natural colour, that can be found in everything from butter spreads to fries, can cause just as strong an adverse reaction (across the spectrum from neurotypical to autistic). It can also be tricky to become aware of the link between food and behaviour because there can be a time delay, of a few hours to next day, before a normally bright, bubbly, sociable child becomes a screaming, angry, yelling, defiant and hysterical one. It’s particularly useful to be aware of if you have an atopic family where food sensitivities, allergies, and eczema are a issue.
Families with children sensitive to annatto have reported side effects such as:
- Oppositional behaviour
- Extreme mood swings (that are out of character)
- Irritable bowel symptoms
- Hives / Rashes
- Severe allergic reactions
Where can I find more information?
I started looking into annatto while reading Sue Dengate’s Fed Up; the most useful online source that I found was a Fact Sheet from the Food Intolerance Network which includes references to scientific studies and personal experiences from a number of affected families.