ANNATTO 160B THE FACTS: So what is annatto? Well, annatto is a food flavouring used mainly in Caribbean, South American, and Filipino cuisine. It is a spice that comes from the Achiote shrub and the flavour is a mild peppery taste. It is also known for its red, yellow and orange colouring, and has been used as a common food colourant to replace artificial colours. Annatto has been listed as a “natural food” colour known as 160b or E160b. But how safe is it? Well to tell you the truth, no one really knows, as very little studies have been done on the food additive.
Annatto has been widely criticised as one of the worst of the worst food additives there is on the supermarket shelves, by both health and wellness bloggers alike. Bloggers claim that it is the devil and even evil They claim that it causes head banging in young children as well as behavioural issues such as, hyperactivity, sleep disturbance and restlessness, without any scientific evidence to back up these claims. Sites like these use scare tactics, which health and wellness bloggers just love to do, to push an agenda based on their own personal observations or opinions on what they believe to be correct, at any given time. While doctors report that one in five parents complain that their child has had a reaction to certain foods, only one in 20 children are confirmed to have a food hypersensitivity when tested.
While there is evidence that annatto can cause a skin type allergic reaction in some, it is more common in people who suffer from urticaria (hives), and there has only been one reported and documented case of an anaphylaxis reaction caused by consuming annatto. There is no scientific evidence that states annatto will cause head-banging in children or behavioural problems.
There are also no studies or scientific evidence that link annatto as a cause or a contributing factor in IBS sufferers. This has been taken out of context and even fabricated by bloggers after a retired MD wrote a letter to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology in 2009 suggesting that annatto may have caused his wife’s IBS symptoms. The letter reads: “I know of no reports in the medical literature linking annatto to IBS,” and then went on to say, “Controlled studies in IBS patient populations would seem to be of value.” Here is a copy of the letter. The letter was then followed up by the editor of the Journal, which states: “It is clear that annatto is common in our foods, it is clear that it is not known as a significant producer of allergic responses, and it is unknown to most of our practitioners dealing with allergies and IBS. Therefore, it behooves us to begin studies in investigating the role of azo dyes such as annatto in the production of the symptoms of the IBS.” Here is a copy of the letter.
That is it, nothing more and nothing less. To date there are still no studies that link annatto to IBS. Yet in our society we still continually have organisations and individuals that take studies out of context or what I call fabricate facts to scare the heebie-jeebies out of our most vulnerable – the sick. For example, take this blog post from Naturally Savvy which states, “…annatto has been associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Which it hasn’t! Even the food intolerance network, also known as fedup.com.au jumped onto the same argument, and wrote, “An account of 40 years of irritable bowel syndrome due to unrecognised sensitivity to annatto,” (made on the Annatto factsheet) again based on no facts, but then the network took things one step further and fudged the study and wrote a systematic report that IBS is linked to annatto and linked it to a study associated with The Royal Prince Alfred (see below), when in fact the colour that was used in the study was tartrazine, a synthetic dye known as E102 and yellow #5, not annatto, as stated by fedup.com.au. I would also like to point out that beta-carotene E160a was used as a placebo in the same study. Annatto was never mentioned in the study nor was annatto referred to in the reference supplied by fedup.com.au. A copy of the study can be found here:
So what we do know as fact is that annatto can cause intolerance in some people, and even The Centre for Science in the Public Interest has suggested use of the additive with caution. The Australian Health Department has also listed annatto as most likely to cause a problem. Annatto can cause an allergic reaction in a small minority of people, as well as intolerance. It is suggested if you believe you may be intolerant to annatto it is best you are tested to rule it out. As the list of all the foods that can and may contain annatto is so long it would be difficult to avoid all products, as it can be used as a “natural flavouring” as well as a “natural colour.” Copy of the schedule is here:
Here is a brief rundown of foods that may contain the colour or flavouring of annatto, the list reads: liquid milk products and flavoured milk. Fermented milk products, condensed and evaporated milk. Cream and cream products including sour cream, whipped, thickened. Dried milk, cheese and cheese products. Edible oils, butter and butter products, including margarine and oil emulsions. Ice cream, and ice products – ice blocks. Processed fruit and vegetables. Confectionery, chocolate and cocoa products, sugar confectionery, icing and frostings. Cereals and meal products, flour products including noodles and pasta. Breads, baking products, biscuits, cakes and pastries. Processed meats, poultry, and game products including edible casings and animal protein products. Processed fish and fish products, semi preserved fish and fish products, preserved fish and canned fish. Rainbow sugar, tabletop sweeteners, reduced sodium salt mixtures, salt substitutes, vinegars and related products. Yeast and yeast products, vegetable protein products, formulated meal replacements and supplementary foods. Formulated supplementary sports foods. Annatto is also allowed in carbonated, mineral and soda products, fruit and vegetable juices, fruit and vegetables juice products, formulated beverages, coffee and coffee substitutes. Wine based drinks and reduced alcohol wines, spirits and liquors, and other alcoholic beverages not listed.
Now that is not all, we now need to target sick and vulnerable persons in our society. Bear in mind, that the Australian Department of Health has listed annatto as an additive “most likely to be a problem.” Yet Food Standards Australia states it is safe and allowed to be on food lists for: Special medical purposes such as liquid food for special medical purposes, as well as food for special medical purposes. It’s a bit mind boggling. In fact I really don’t think the Department of Health and the Australian Food Standards are on good speaking terms. Maybe they’re having a cat fight over who is superior? But anyway we will continue…. as there is more. Annatto is also allowed to be used in any food and beverages not listed in the above schedule.
So is there anything that annatto is not in? Well yes and that is unprocessed fruit and vegetables, eggs, raw meat – yes please cook before consuming, poultry and game and unprocessed fish, as these items are not permitted to contain annatto under the schedule. Scary isn’t it? I just hope studies will be done in the near future to determine if annatto is the single cause or a contributing factor to food intolerances, as well as IBS, as it seems that annatto is one of the most widely used food additives in the processed food industry and one of the most popular next to sugar.