Annatto (labelled E160b in the European Union) is a yellow-orange colour found in many icecreams, margarines, custards, cheeses (especially orange-coloured cheeses such as Double Gloucester and Red Leicester), crisps and drinks.


Annatto is plant-derived, so it’s vegan, but vegans and non-vegans alike would do well to avoid products that contain it. If you’re not actively avoiding annatto, it’s almost certainly in some of the food products that you and your family eat and drink.


In my personal opinion, young children simply should not be consuming any products that contain annatto at all. The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group include annatto on their list of food additives that can cause problems for children who are sensitive to it, and whether your child is hyperactive or not, the only way to be certain that your child is not sensitive to annatto is to start by ensuring that it (and other problematic additives) are excluded from their diet, and then pay close attention when you (re-)introduce it.


One mum has written a great blog post describing her family’s experience of realising that her child is sensitive to annatto – if you have an otherwise delightful (or not) child who sometimes goes a bit doo-lalley/becomes extremely irritable or loud/goes into complete meltdown and you haven’t yet excluded annatto, read her post – you may have a child who is allergic to annatto.


Adverse reactions in children and adults are not limited to hyperactivity – they may also include skin reactions (uticaria/hives), gastrointestinal problems (irritable bowel syndrome), irritability, restlessness, inattention…


Annatto is derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, which means that it is classified as a ‘natural’ colour, so don’t rely on front of pack claims that a product contains ‘no artificial colours” – always check the full ingredients list on the back of the pack!


As an aside, this explanation from the archives of the British Cheese Board gives some insight into why manufacturers persist in putting problematic additives into our food:


“Double Gloucester cheese […] has a characteristic light orange hue given by the addition of annatto to the milk. This has been a traditional characteristic of the cheese since the 16th century when producers of inferior cheese used a colouring agent to replicate the orange hue achieved by the best cheesemakers who were probably making the cheese from the evening’s milking to which was added the separated cream of the morning’s milking. During the summer months the high levels of carotene in the grass would have given the milk an orangey colour which was carried through into the cheese. This orange hue was regarded as an indicator of the best cheese and that is why the custom of adding annatto spread to other parts of the UK with Cheshire and Red Leicester cheese as well as Coloured Cheddar made in Scotland all using this natural dye. ” 



For centuries, food manufacturers have been using additives as a way of fooling consumers into thinking the food they’re buying is more nutritious than it is really is; don’t let annatto fool you any longer.


Further reading:

The Australia-based Food Intolerance Network provides the most robust summary I’ve come across in its factsheet about annatto.