FOOD INTOLERANCE NETWORK FACTSHEET
Keywords: annatto, 160b, natural colour, vegetable dye, bixin, norbixin
Use of natural colour annatto 160b is increasing in our food supply as artificial colours are phased out. We are concerned that annatto is considered to be a safe additive in food especially targeting young children, such as in yoghurts and in the Heinz Little Kids soft fruit bars. Thank you to Sanitarium for recently removing annatto from their product So Good Vanilla Bliss soy ice cream.
Annatto orange-yellow colour is a vegetable dye made from the seed coat of the tropical Annatto tree (Bixa orellana). In Australia it is commonly used in cereals, snack foods, dairy foods including yoghurts, icecreams and cheeses, snack foods and a wide range of other foods. It can also be called bixin and norbixin.
It is the only natural colour that has so far as been found to cause as many adverse intolerance reactions as artificial colours and to affect more consumers that artificial colours. It has also been associated with rare allergic reactions.
Adverse reactions to annatto can include skin, gastrointestinal, airways and central nervous system reactions.
Headaches, irritability and others
The Food Intolerance Network has received many complaints about this additive, including headaches in adults and children, headbanging in young children, and irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance in children and adults as well as the full range listed above plus arthritis. Reactions to annatto can occur the same day but are more likely to be delayed than reactions to artificial colours, and are therefore more difficult to identify.
A safe alternative
Beta-carotene (160a) is a safe alternative. Although the adverse effects of annatto are recognised by FSANZ, our national food standards authority, their view is that betacarotene 160a is too difficult and expensive to use. Since 160a is used widely all over Europe instead of annatto, it would seem that European food companies are more concerned about the welfare of their consumers than their Australian counterparts. For example, Australia is the only country in the world where Magnum icecreams contain annatto colouring.
More people with urticaria reacted to annatto than to artificial colours in this study:
Mikkelsen H and others Hypersensitivity reactions to food colours with special reference to the natural colour annatto extract (butter colour). Arch Toxicol Suppl 1978;(1):141-3
"It is well known that synthetic food colours especially some azo dyes can provoke hypersensitivity reactions such as urticaria, angioneurotic oedema, and astma (Michaelsson and Juhlin, 1973, Granholt and Thune, 1975). Natural food colours are scarcely investigated with respect to potential allergic properties. Annatto extract, a commonly used food colour in edible fats e.g. butter, has been tested in patients. Among 61 consecutive patients suffering from chronic urticaria and/or angioneurotic oedema 56 patients were orally provoked by annatto extract during elimination diet. Challenge was performed with a dose equivalent to the amount used in 25 grammes of butter. Twenty six per cent of the patients reacted to this colour 4 hours (SD: 2,6) after intake. Similar challenges with synthetic dyes showed the following results: Tartrazine 11%, Sunset Yellow FCF 17%, Food Red 17 16%, Amaranth 9%, Ponceau 4 R 15%, Erythrosine 12% and Brillant Blue FCF 14%. The present study indicates that natural food colours may induce hypersensitivity reactions as frequent as synthetic dyes."
Reactions to annatto are usually, but not always, non-IgE-mediated intolerance reactions. This is an account of a rare allergic reaction.
Nish WA and others. Anaphylaxis to annatto dye: a case report Ann Allergy 1991 Feb;66(2):129-31
Annatto dye is an orange-yellow food coloring extracted from the seeds of the tree Bixa orellana. It is commonly used in cheeses, snack foods, beverages, and cereals. Previously reported adverse reactions associated with annatto dye have included urticaria and angioedema. We present a patient who developed urticaria, angioedema, and severe hypotension within 20 minutes following ingestion of milk and Fiber One cereal, which contained annatto dye … The patient had a strong positive skin test to annatto dye … Annatto dye may contain contaminating or residual seed proteins to which our patient developed IgE hypersensitivity. Annatto dye is a potential rare cause of anaphylaxis.
Stein HL. Annatto and IBS. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2009 ;43(10):1014-5.
An account of 40 years of irritable bowel syndrome due to unrecognised sensitivity to annatto.
Floch MH. Annatto, diet, and the irritable bowel syndrome. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2009;43(10):905-6.
Professor Floch is Clinical Professor of Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine. His review concludes '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 the irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, it behooves us to begin studies in investigating the role of dyes such as annatto in the production of the symptoms of the irritable bowel syndrome'.
Ebo DG et al, Allergy for cheese: evidence for an IgE-mediated reaction from the natural dye annatto. Allergy. 2009;64(10):1558-60
This is an account of an anaphylactic reaction to annatto in cheese.
Juhlin L. Recurrent urticaria: clinical investigation of 330 patients.Br J Dermatol. 1981;104(4):369-81.
Provocation tests with many additives including annatto revealed one or more positive reactions in one-third of patients..
Annatto is one of a number of food additives found to cause adverse reactions Clarke L and others. The dietary management of food allergy and food intolerance in children and adults. Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics 1996;53(3): page 92.
 160b: "anaphylactic reaction" to annnatto (January 2006)
I am a 30 year old Nurse living in the UK. A few days ago I had an anaphylactic reaction that came on within 20 minutes of eating cereal. I ate my usual brand of muesli mixed with some high fibre cereal my hubby bought from our local health food shop. It is called "Ultra Soya & Linseed Bran" made by a company in Australia called Vogels. I had not eaten anything else that morning and looking at the list of ingredients the only ingredient I do not eat regularly is the natural food colour Annatto (160b). My hubby has been looking this up on the net and found many reports of allergies to this. - UK
 160b: "rage and headbanging" from annatto (January 2006)
My daughter has been exhibiting rage and headbanging that has has progressed over the last 9 months with many other symptoms . After I dsicovered your website I eliminated annatto a week ago and the headbanging diminished but has not disappeared. Annatto was in her vitamins and granola bars that she consumed daily. It was also in many other items that she consumed such as ice cream, Doritos, salad dressing. I am now eliminating all additives you recommend to avoid. - USA
 160b: "banging his head against a brick wall" (January 2006)
My son used to bang his head when he was little. He's 12 now and we are doing the diet for his behaviour. After the annatto challenge he started banging his head against a brick wall for about half an hour. When he stopped he told us that he had a headache so bad that banging his head seemed to be the only way to make it feel better. - Australia
 Yellow addiction (May 2007)
My son was restless from the day he was born. His paediatrician told me to not feed him dairy or wheat and suggested I feed him meat and vegetables and fruit for the first year of his life. When he was one, I decided to broaden his diet a bit and started feeding him vanilla ice cream. I didn't understand at the time, but he started throwing the most awful tantrums and head banging. He became obsessed with the colour yellow. He only wanted to wear yellow clothes, draw with yellow pencils and chose toys that were yellow. My friends constantly commented on his yellow addiction. I used to feed him corn and cheese omelettes for dinner with vanilla ice cream and banana for dessert. I'd mix the banana in thoroughly so the ice cream looked more yellow. It wasn't until 18 months later that I started learning about nasty food chemicals, and learned that annatto 160b natural yellow colouring was causing a lot of problems. When we got together with other mothers, he'd go straight for yellow food and always want yellow drinks. It was a bit of a joke really. He'd choose yellow lollies over other colours and when I asked him what colour he wanted his room painted, he of course said Yellow. I stopped allowing him food with 160b in it, but still let him have it when he went out. My friends thought I was over the top with food.
 160b: 'Croup cough' from annatto (see also Annatto factsheet) (November 2007)
My four-year-old son has peanut, egg and dairy allergies and is anaphylactic so as you can imagine I spend hours reading labels. We have been buying So-Good products for about two years and generally he is fine. Recently he has been having the creamy vanilla for dessert and having what I thought was a croup cough. I soon realised the nights he didn't have it there was no "croup cough". After several calls to Sanitarium and speaking with the dietician, I have worked out that it must be the annatto E160b causing a reaction. – by email
 160b: Head banging and annatto (see also Annatto factsheet) (November 2007)
Just thought I would let you know, after your recent talk in Maitland I went back to work and told a friend about annatto 160b as her two-year-old daughter had been splitting her head open head banging. My friend has kept her daughter off the annatto for a week now and her daughter has stopped head banging. She still gets in the position when she is throwing a tantrum but doesn't bang her head. Amazing! This is only additive she has removed! – by email, NSW
 160b: Marlene's story: annatto 160b and IBS (November 2009)
First, may I tell you my husband is a retired Allergist and Immunologist and he observed my IBS experiences then elimination of them. For more than 40 years I had diarrhea and severe intestinal pain. The symptoms changed as the years passed. It went from occasional to frequent and from mild to severe. This leads me to believe it is dose and frequency related. The four years prior to my discovery that annatto was the problem for me, it was daily and severe. I would get an excruciating stomach ache with bloating after 20 minutes of ingestion of an annatto product. After another 20 minutes I had an emergency run to the WC and a long bout with painful diarrhea followed by many more trips to the WC. Then, I was enervated and just wanted to do nothing and sometimes for days after. I wasn't lactose intolerant nor did I have Celiac Sprue (which the doctors considered). In 2005, after a colonoscopy, my GI diagnosed me with IBS. The symptoms continued until 2006, when I was able to pinpoint what caused my IBS symptoms.
On a 37 day trip to Europe, I had no symptoms and was "normal". I thought about what I was eating in the States and not in Europe. Coffee Mate came to mind. I was asymptomatic the entire trip except for one cup of coffee with a non-dairy product on the plane. Aha! Back in the States, I stayed off Coffee Mate and was fine. 30 days later I tried it and the IBS returned. A few weeks later I ate a scoop of vanilla ice cream; IBS again. What they had in common was annatto, so I researched annatto. There are hundreds of papers on annatto but not one linking annatto to IBS. My husband ordered pure annatto and experimented on me. I got the full-blown IBS when we shared a glass of water with annatto. He didn't. Annatto predictably results in IBS symptoms of intestinal pain and diarrhea in me. It doesn't make sense I could be the only one who gets IBS symptoms from Annatto! - Marlene Stein 2009 (see Marlene's wesbite www.ibsnomore.com with lists of annatto containing foods in the USA)
 160b: Another report of annatto and irritable bowel symptoms (November 2009)
I am a 43 mother and have done the RPA elimination diet twice. I have Colitis and my big 3 "no-no's" are: annatto 160b, synthetic antioxidants such as BHA 320, and sorbates. Of these, annatto is the worst. Kate, NSW
 160b: Yet another report of annatto and irritable bowel symptoms (extract from )
Seven years ago at the age of 55 I had a very nasty gastro-intestinal virus which led to CFS and IBS. Because of the severity of the IBS, I had many tests - some nasty, with scary implications. Finally, a very helpful dietitian (who works closely with the RPAH allergy unit) put me onto the elimination diet nearly 2 years ago. We have found that I have numerous intolerances: lactose, gluten, salicylates, amines, soy, MSG, sorbitol, sulphites, benzoates, annatto - to name a few.... by email
 160b: Jack's head banging and annatto (June 2010)
My son Jack, now aged 4, was a great baby, he slept 18 hours a day and was joy to be around except that he would not use his bowels for days and days. We took him to doctor after specialist after scan and no-one knew why. In the end the only way we could get him to use his bowels was to medicate him every day.
Also at about 6 months (at the time of introduction of solids) Jack started head-butting the cot. Honestly I am not exaggerating when I tell you that he had golf ball sized lumps on his forehead – again more scans, tests and drs. No-one knew why. The professionals told me to take him out of a cot and put him into a bed so he couldn't forward head-butt. Great Idea – he then proceeded to get out of bed and backward head-butt the wall. I have holes in the gyprock in the wall where he would head-butt his way through the gyprock. One night it was that hard the hinges in the door popped out. My neighbours could hear it and if I was on the phone people could hear it. It would mainly happen during the night or when he woke up from a day sleep. People told me he was hot, cold, tired, not stimulated enough, over stimulated, lonely blah blah blah.
I decided none of the professionals were helping so I decided one by one to withdraw foods from his diet. I started with dairy – I removed 95% of the dairy form his diet – I allowed him 1 cup of milk and 1 yoghurt a day and this showed a massive improvement, he would use his bowels without medication - it still required a lot of effort on his part but hey it was better than medication and the headbutting decreased. I took yoghurt off him and amazingly enough my happy little man returned. At the time I did not realise the importance of this find (that there was annatto in his favourite yoghurt).
One year later I gave him his favourite vanilla yoghurt with 160B in it and OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!! He was up on all 4s rocking all night headbutting the pillow moaning and the next morning he woke up with a headache. We let it go a week and then we tried it with icecream and he was the same only this time he was reverse headbutting the wall like he used to do when he was a baby. – Nicolle, NSW
 160b: Rash and head banging with bruises from annatto (June 2010)
From about 12 months of age, my son developed intermittent spots, rashes and blotches on his face and around his mouth. On 3 occasions he swelled up in the face, neck and hands (twice at daycare, once at home). We took him to an allergist who told us it was intolerances, gave us a list of additives to avoid, and told us he would outgrow it. The only additive that I could definitely identify at the time was 160b. Each time he ate it he would get develop a rash or tiny spots around his mouth and the blotches would return. Interestingly, at the same time, he also would bang his head in frustration on the floor. It was usually as part of a tantrum, he would drop to the floor and bang his head. He had a permanent bruise in the middle of his forehead for several months (see photo – it's really a bruise upon bruise upon bruise, from banging his head on the floor!) I cannot say for sure if the headbanging stopped at exactly the same time as we eliminated 160b, because I never associated them together, but am now thinking it was related.
As it turned out, the allergist was wrong and he did not outgrow his intolerances, they just manifested in a different way and he became a very difficult child around 2.5 years of age... At 3 years of age we went additive free for 6 weeks, and while this did help, it was not enough, so we have now been failsafe since Oct 2007. He is very sensitive to sals, sensitive to amines and cannot tolerate some additives. – by email, Vic
 160b: Head banging stopped when additives were removed (June 2010)
My son is 2 and spent approx 18 mths headbanging. I can't say for sure, but it could possibly have been approx the time we removed 160b from his diet that he stopped. I removed 160b along with the other additives you recommend avoiding to help manage my son's behaviour. It has seemed to work very well. Adjusting his diet has made being a parent so much more enjoyable and I would like to thank you for this.
We removed the 160b (and all the other additives) approx 5 -6 months ago. We had a major relapse at Easter. This confirmed my suspicions and made my husband realise that the food additives did affect our child.
On looking back, our son stopped headbanging around this time, but I can't say whether it was as a result of the changed diet or not. I didn't realise until seeing your talk a few weeks ago, the headbanging could be related to 160b. The foods my son ate that contained 160b were cheese slices, margarine and yoghurt. I'm sure there would have been others, but these are the ones he ate every (or almost every) day. – Heather, by email
 160b: Annatto related head banging in a 2 year old (June 2010)
My two year old daughter was banging her head about ten times per day. I was giving her 'no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives' yoghurt but I didn't know to avoid annatto. When I changed to a different brand (no annatto), she only had one episode of head banging in the next two days. – by email, NT
 160b: Head banging in a 3 year old (June 2010)
I am a fan of your work and have been looking at the Head Banging information, I am going to make sure we avoid 160b because I think that causes my 3 year old son to do head banging. My son has been eating custard, yoghurt (I have switched to the Jalna brand this week), and ice cream (home ice-cream treasure troves, lots of colours in it, so stopped them). He would generally have custard or yoghurt in the morning and either ice-cream, custard or yoghurt around 5pm.
I have taken 160b out of his diet, which I will do for a few weeks and then re-introduce it to see what happens. His head banging can be to put him to sleep and during the night and very early in the morning, approx 5am. He banged his head in his cot, which was probably around the time he started eating solids, custard and baby yoghurt.
Since avoiding annatto and artificial colours his head banging incidents have lessened. He has had one head banging incident this week around 5am in the morning on Thursday morning so he may have had something at child care that caused it. They do have Yoplait yoghurt on alternate days, so they would have had it on Wednesday morning. – Caryn, by email
 160b: irritability, defiance, head and body banging (June 2010)
We adopted our son from Russia two years ago (he is now three). He is sensory seeking and delayed in speech. We have only recently uncovered a link between his food and behavior, particularly with Annatto. It makes him hyper, sleepless, defiant, irritable, and a body banger against furniture (not limited to head banging), starting within 1-2 hours and lasting up to 24 hours.
Our son had been seeing an occupational therapist 2x's per month for sensory seeking behaviors. The OT recommended looking into a link between nutrition and behavior. We met with an allergist first. Her tests proved negative for protein allergies. She suggested that we start saving food labels any time we suspected reactions and compare them for common ingredients. The first food we noticed was Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish Crackers. Our son was very stimulated and not able to nap. I saw Annatto listed and wondered what it was. I did an internet search and found your website and others. The next time I saw a reaction, Annatto was in the peach yogurt I had fed him. On this particular day at naptime, he sat backwards in his rocking chair and banged it continually into the wall.
We started the Feingold program here in the U.S. and, as you probably know, it does not address Annatto so we eliminated Annatto as well. Our son's issues decreased within the first week. He was less hyper, more compliant, and able to sleep better, except for one noticeable withdrawal episode - his first on-the-floor kicking temper tantrum. My favorite result to cite is when I asked him to put books away. He answered "Okay, Mama" and did it right away. This is the sweet little boy who was there all along. I hate the idea that the foods I thought were good for him were causing him to misbehave and causing me frustration. We are happy to be Annatto-free now.
We are finding it hard to identify products with Annatto since it is not always stated by name or number in the ingredients list. We are learning to stay away from products with "natural flavors & colors" even if Feingold approved. There are many products that we have since cut out of his diet after discovering the Annatto link.
Changing our son's food and skin care products was easier than I ever imagined. He hardly notices, except for the times I have to say no to certain foods that do not have good things in them for him. It does take extra effort but it is well worth it. Still, I look forward to the day when the food-behavior link is widely accepted, forcing companies to eliminate these harmful additives from our supermarket shelves. – by email, USA
 160b: agitated, uncontrollable, full of energy, hyperactive (June 2010)
I have 2 boys, aged 3 and 1 who both react badly to annatto. About half an hour after our 3 year old has had something with annatto in he is uncontrollable, agitated, full of energy, really full on. Hyperactive is how someone has described it.
I had read about annatto by chance and at first didn't think much of it but I mentioned it to my husband who said he reacted to red and yellow colours as a child so I stopped buying anything with 160b in it. I can't say I noticed anything for a while but one day we had dinner at a friend's place and our 3 yo was offered some ice cream. I didn't think to check it. Within half an hour our son was a nightmare. Kicking, screaming, purposefully doing things to annoy/upset us, refusing to sleep and thrashing out etc. My husband and I were shocked - what had happened to our child? Suddenly the penny dropped and I called to ask if the ice cream had 160b in it - it did! Since then we've also seen reactions to cheese, custard and yoghurt (at daycare until I asked not to give annatto to him). – Silvia, NSW
 160b: Restless legs and sleep disturbance (June 2010)
At various times over recent months I have suffered with restless legs and a disturbed night's sleep. Today I decided to investigate the ingredients of the fish fingers we had for dinner last night, and found that they contained 160b. I believe that this colour is most likely the cause of my restless legs and sleep disturbance. I will therefore be avoiding it at all costs in the future.
… One month later …Since I've stopped eating the fish fingers I've had no more restless legs. I'm convinced that it is the 160b causing them. I've since eaten the fish fingers without the batter and had no ill effects.
I've noticed that 160b is in so many foods. Bulla's mini icecreams too. What a pity. They claim to be free of artificial flavours and colours, but still contain the natural colour 160b.I was hoping to give them to my kids until I read the ingredients list.
Many times in past years I have suffered with restless legs at night and hadn't known what caused them. Perhaps it was 160b then as well. I wasn't taking any notice of what was in my food then. Thank-you for such informative and helpful reading. – Sue C, NSW
 160b: Screaming, angry, yelling, defiant and hysterical (June 2010)
Our journey through the numbers maze has recently brought us face to face with 160b. We have discovered through accidental trial and error that our 5 year old daughter who can be the most bright, fun, playful and intelligent little girl can be reduced to a little monster by this "natural" additive. It is so horrible to watch. When I know that she has had something with 160b, we wait for the ticking time bomb. It is usually anywhere from a few hours later it starts and can last for a day or more ... she turns into a screaming, angry, yelling, defiant and hysterical little girl. It breaks my heart. She knows why she gets like that, but there is no reasoning with her when she is in that place. We just wait for her to fall asleep ... only to wake up in the morning like a bear with a sore head.
We first became aware of 160b about a year and a half ago. Custard was the culprit. My mum was staying with us at the time and she was amazed as well when we found out that the custard was the link to her behaviour. She would have the custard at night as dessert and hey presto in the morning the grumpy bum would awake. Cranky, whingey, defiant and tantrums. It would take around about 24 hours for her to come back to us! Ice cream is another one. Every Sunday we would all go down and get icecreams ... same thing (of course this is all in hindsight). Monday morning our alter ego/grumpy daughter would wake up and it would take until about Wednesday to get back to some sort of normalcy only to repeat the cycle again the following Sunday. Now we buy the Peters vanilla icecream and natural icecream cones without colour and have our Sunday icecreams at home. – Sarah B, NSW
 160b: Sneaky poos reaction to McDonalds Soft Serve (June 2010)
It seems every time after Soft Serve Ice cream my 8 yo daughter has sneaky poos. Even when we tried it yesterday without the cone. She gets them about an hour after the ice cream. - Alison, Qld (annatto has since been removed from the McDonalds Soft Serves)
 160b: Attraction to the colour yellow (June 2010)
My 6 and a half year old daughter has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS. Since about 6 months of age, we have given her those kids yoghurts that you buy in 6 packs with the kids themes like Nemo and Bob the builder. We thought that because she wouldn't drink milk we needed to give her a dairy substitute, and that they would suffice.
While being a generally placid child since birth, she displayed difficulty concentrating on tasks, a great attraction to the colour yellow, meltdowns at times such as leaving a friend's house or upon being denied a request, sneaky poos, bedwetting, and poor fine motor skills. She was assessed as having a severe speech delay when 3 and a half. Her drawing was at best scribbling in a general area, and she had great problems following dotted outlines of alphabet letters. She displayed very poor short term memory, and repetitive behaviours. She was also wanting food all the time, although she is not overweight. She only drinks water, has never eaten confectionery, has ice cream on the odd occasion, but otherwise generally eats rice bubbles, weetbix, watermelon, grapes, apples, pears, occasionally custard, and plain biscuits. Dinner is usually either rice, pasta or mashed potato with steamed veggies and fish, chicken or beef with no added sauces.
Recently we were made aware of your book and in particular, the adverse effects of the 160b colouring additive. Upon reading up about it in the book, we also looked at the fed up website where we noticed the link to PDD-NOS. After reading some of the testimonials and realising that many of the other parent's experiences were sounding familiar, we decided to eliminate 160b from her diet.
We initially stopped the kids' yoghurts, which she had been having up to 5 a day, on 22 February 2009. Within about 4 or 5 days her drawing had improved remarkably, she could follow dotted lines correctly, her concentration to tasks jumped, not one meltdown occurred, her sneaky poos stopped, bedwetting reduced, and her speech started to improve noticeably. After noticing these improvements, we then looked at the rest of her diet and switched to Brumbys bread, eliminated anything else that we thought had 160b such as custard, switched to A2 or Jersey mik, and stopped using fabric conditioner. We have noticed over the last month that she seems to have matured noticeably, is more compliant, and is more focussed on cognitive tasks. Her teachers and tutors have all noticed a dramatic improvement in her learning ability. She no longer seeks food constantly, has lost her attraction to the colour yellow, has mostly stopped her repetitive behaviour, and her short term memory is markedly better. In fairness, we also started a reward scheme to help stop the sneaky poos at about the same time. However, she is a bit unique in that except for the 160b element, she was virtually following a failsafe style diet already. So we have been quite surprised that it seems that removing 160b has had a dramatic effect for her. -Sharon, Qld
In a 25 year review of diet and behaviour, scientists from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest concluded that:
"The obvious public health response would be to remove the irritants, if possible, from the foods that children eat."
The answer is clear: REFUSE TO BUY! And tell the food companies of your decision.
© Sue Dengate update September 2010