“Natural” food colors may be to blame for your child’s mysterious allergic reactions. Annatto and carmine can be just as harmful as artificial food dyes.
By Hilary Kimes Bernstein, Contributing Writer
As a fairly new mom, I remember being shocked when my sweet 18-month-old son started violently and repeatedly banging his head against anything. Even concrete. Within no time, his sensitive little forehead would drip with blood.
I knew something was very wrong, but had no idea what it could be. Was his newfound aggression just a stage?
One night after my head-banging son was tucked in bed, I happened to stumble across online testimonies about other children with head banging issues. Strangely enough, their behaviors completely changed once their parents removed annatto from their diets.
What is annatto?
Annatto, extracted from South American annatto seeds, is used to naturally color orange or yellow foods. Because its properties easily bind to milk proteins, it’s frequently used to color dairy products like cheese, and cheese items like Goldfish and Cheez-It crackers.
Unfortunately, annatto causes just about as many reactions as artificial colors, including headaches, irritability, restlessness, sleep disturbance, and head banging in young children.
Once I discovered this, I searched our pantry and refrigerator and immediately removed any product with annatto.
My son had been exclusively breastfed, then started on fresh vegetable and fruit purees. His diet quickly expanded to include meats, dairy, and grains. But we introduced him to snack foods when he hit the year and a half mark. He particularly loved cheesy crackers. And since it was in the middle of summer, he liked to cool down with natural (yet processed) ice pops.
Because they all contained annatto, I got rid of his beloved cheesy crackers, ice pops, and yellow cheese.
Within days our son quickly changed back to his normal self. After we saw the drastic change with our own eyes, we were so relieved to have our sweet little boy back.
Quickly I learned that it’s very important to know what your child eats – because food can affect little bodies in big ways.
Annatto’s Not All
Because annatto is a color taken from a plant, it’s often called “natural color” on ingredient lists. It’s not the only natural color that’s known to cause adverse affects – carmine is another.
Carmine is cochineal extract, a red coloring made of the pulverized bodies of dead female cochineal insects. (Yes, the red is extracted from ground-up bugs.) Aside from a gross-out factor, carmine is known to aggravate asthma and it also can cause anaphylactic shock.
While natural colors like beta carotene, beet powder, caramel color, saffron, turmeric, or fruit and vegetable juices are safe, children with known food sensitivities should avoid ingesting products made with annatto and carmine.
Avoiding So Much
The unfortunate part is that I never suspected natural colors could cause problems, even though I already knew that artificial colors did.
Red No. 40, also called Red Dye 40 or Red 40, causes aggression, hyperactivity, temper tantrums, kicking, uncontrollable kicking and screaming, nervousness, dizziness, and headaches. Red No. 40 is found in all kinds of processed foods like candy, soda pop, Pop Tarts, Kool-Aid, Cheetos, Doritos – and even in vitamins and medications.
And Yellow No. 5, also called tartrazine or Yellow Dye 5, causes other reactions, including asthma, eczema, hives, hyperactivity, irritability, lack of attention, migraines, restlessness, sleep disturbances, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (Go here and here for further reading.)
In what certainly seems to be a distinct correlation, hyperactivity, head banging, and restless legs became common symptoms in children after processed foods were introduced to American diets in the 1960s.
What you can do if you suspect food dye sensitivity
For parents who are dealing with behavior problems in their children, trying a strict elimination diet for three weeks is a good way to identify food-related causes.
First, eliminate artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, or preservatives. During the three weeks without the food additives, observe your child’s behavior and physical tendencies. After three weeks, all the chemicals should be out of your child’s system. Slowly reintroduce additives and watch for any behavioral changes.
Keep in mind that children can be sensitive to the additives in foods they consume, and food additives also transfer through breast milk, making it possible for nursing infants to be affected by colors and preservatives. Because of this, parents – especially nursing mothers – should monitor their own diets, to make sure they’re not passing along additives.
All of this information can be overwhelming, but as parents, we want to protect our kids and keep them healthy! Work on gradually improving your family’s diet, and give yourself grace in those seasons when things aren’t ideal. There are lots of ways to eat healthy even if you can’t afford organic food!
To avoid natural and artificial food dyes in your children’s diet, here are some “kid-friendly” foods you can make from scratch!
Cheeseburger Tortilla Skillet
Rice Flour Fried Chicken
Homemade Cheesy Crackers
Crock Pot Applesauce
Cinnamon Coffeecake Muffins
Creamy Pineapple Coconut Popsicles
Probiotic Powerhouse Popsicles
Get more recipes in the Recipe Index here on the blog!
Stacy @Stacy Makes Cents
WOW! I had no idea…thanks Hilary!
Thank you for this article. My girls are 2 and 3 years old. My 3 year old eats alot of these snacks as so does her younger sister, but she throws tantrums much more. I will try to eliminate these from her diet. I did before but didn’t stick with it. Thank you again!
Rachel @ day2day joys
Good to know and thanks for doing this research Hilary!
I have never heard of annatto coloring causing problems! I’ve always made sure my cheese had that as opposed to artificial colors, but now maybe I will stick with white cheeses.
I’ve always tried to avoid caramel color, thinking it was an artificial color. You say it’s natural, but what is it made from?
Caramel color can be artificial, but sometimes it is natural. When it’s natural, it is made from carbohydrates such as dextrose. The caramel color in pop is usually not good and artificial. To be on the safe side, I would only consume organic caramel color.
While I agree about not using artificial dyes (and maybe some natural ones as well), please don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t improve after withdrawing various additives.
“In what certainly seems to be a distinct correlation, hyperactivity, head banging, and restless legs became common symptoms in children after processed foods were introduced to American diets in the 1960s.”
I was born in 1949. In the early 1950s I had all of the above. I couldn’t go to sleep without banging my entire body back and forth every night. I also was (and still am!) hyperactive. I also had restless leg syndrome before anyone knew what it was. My parents never let us have any type of dyed food, and we weren’t even allowed sodas or anything remotely unhealthy.
I turned out somewhat normal (!) and am full of energy to this day. I taught nutrition at the college level and do my best to avoid processed food with most additives. I think the idea of withdrawing a child or adult from a certain food for three weeks is a great idea. Just make sure you’re not looking for the change and in so doing see something which isn’t really there (aka placebo affect).
I don’t remember where I read it (maybe FoodMatters?) but I don’t think caramel color is natural. I know when it’s combined with preservatives it causes major problems. I just tried a quick search to remind me what happens when they’re combined and nothing is coming up. Worth looking into though.
Wow, I’d never heard of that before. I do know gluten and casein, the proteins in wheat and dairy can severely affect someone’s health and behavior. I can’t handle dairy and neither can the rest of my family. For me it’s always caused stomach pain, diarrhea, bloating and gas, plus it causes my body to produce excess mucous and my sinuses get clogged. My oldest daughter gets puffy. Her breasts, chin, cheeks and neck enlarge visibly after eating dairy. My second child has trouble breathing at night after eating dairy and she also gets clogged sinuses. My 5 year old daughter has eczema and it’s made much worse when she consumes dairy. My husband refuses to admit it but he puffs up and starts to grow bigger moobs when he consumes dairy. He also has asthma and it gets worse as well.
I think we’re all gluten intolerant but I’m still trying to figure that out. My son is horribly gluten intolerant. He was like a ferocious little wild animal when he was on gluten. He’d kick, bite, scratch, scream, pitch fits, throw things, himself… Just imagine the worst behaved child you’ve ever seen act up at the grocery store. Yup. That was him. And his screams were no ordinary screams. He would emit these ear-piercing screeches that you couldn’t protect your ears from no matter how you covered your ears. I believe I have permanent damage to my hearing because of it. When he was still on gluten I could not take him to any store. My husband and I had to take turns going to church because we couldn’t take him. He would terrorize the children in his Sunday School class. Once we got him off gluten (I had to fight my husband’s diet sabotage first.) he began to gradually calm down and I was able to take him out in public again. Turns out he had other issues we couldn’t detect because of the behavioral stuff but he’s doing so much better now.
Reading this article kinda made me wonder if this child had some dairy issues too since they were processed dairy items that were removed from his diet? Something to think about.
My 3 year old was having very aggressive tantrums every single day that would last up to an hour. Nothing made that child happy. Until I decided to remove all the artificial colors from our diet, she’s now the child she once was as a baby. Amazing what these toxic chemicals can do to a little one. We haven’t removed the annatto yet though as I’m having a hard time finding nonexpensive cheese. Anybody have an suggestions?
Check out our dye free journey!
If you live in an area with an Azure drop point, Rumiano makes an excellent cheese with no annatto and it’s not much more than the junk in my grocery store. Or just do a search for Rumiano cheese.
We live in the Houston area, not sure we have one. 🙁
You can check at www.azurestandard.com. My guess is they do, since they have other TX drop points.
I know azure has Houston drops. Our driver was going twice a month and now goes once a month.
We buy our cheese at an Amish store. This prices are very competitive with the grocery chains, and i get a 10% discount if i buy a whole block instead of a smaller package. We get white American instead of the traditional yellow. They also have a HUGE variety of cheeses to choose from!
Thanks so much for sharing this article. I am looking to slowly remove artificial food from my family and try and introduce more real food. I am learning as much as I can.
Apparently annatto reactions are not just experienced by kids. A friend of mine in her 50s told me she can’t have it – and after carefully watching my emotional well being after consuming annatto (I love cheese) it became clear that my episodes of extreme irritability are always after eating yellow cheese or other products containing annatto. I had thought I was going crazy and it was pre-menopause changes. I hated myself for being so mean to my family at times and felt powerless to control it. I wonder how many other adults are having issues with Annatto. I gobbled up yellow cheese my whole life and I don’t think this came on until after my first child was born when I was in my mid 30s..
Two years ago when my son was 11 years old, he started having behavior problems in his 5th grade class along with frequent blow-ups/tantrums at home. He would have episodes of extreme irritability and would become angry, defiant, irrational, out of control, and sometimes threaten to harm himself. Eventually we determined he had an annatto intolerance. His daily 10 a.m. classroom snack had changed to Cheez-its (containing annatto). We had been avoiding Goldfish for years because, we joked, they seemed to make him crazy, but it had always been more like hyperactivity than irritability. He did not experience head banging or obvious irritability after annatto exposure when young, so possibly his intolerance has worsened with age. Now that we are aware, we work hard to avoid annatto because it can lead to some really nasty and scary behavior. Read all labels. Annatto is being used more and more in baked goods and dairy products now that manufacturers are trying to avoid the artificial colors. If faced with a choice, I’ll choose Red Dye #40 every time.
Came across this article by accident and it’s great! If you ever want to post something on my FB fan page let me know. My name is Lyn-Genet Recitas and I’m author of The Plan, an anti-inflammatory diet that specializes in food sensitivities. I work mainly with adults and would love to offer my information to my fan base about children’s sensitivities
I discovered my youngest son reacts to annatto a couple of years ago (he is now 5yo) when he would eat Wheat Thins and within 10 minutes, he was banging his entire body repeatedly into the couch…and then came begging for more.
At first I thought maybe it was the sugar…then maybe wheat. I started doing some research and found two studies…one from Australia and one from Europe on the impact of annatto in people with sensitivities. I emptied our house of all of it.
I was so happy to read your article this morning. So many people don’t understand food sensitivities–especially as it relates to behavior and mood. Thank you for this!
I found out early on that my girls react to annatto. I find this website to have lots of useful information. http://fedup.com.au/factsheets/additive-and-natural-chemical-factsheets/160b-annatto
Thanks for the tip!
Fed Up is an amazing resource! My twins react to Salicylates – and have done so since around the age of 3 months, but it wasn’t suggested to my until they were 10 months old and it took us another 8 months to deal with or rule out other intolerances. It’s been a rough journey but now they are 2 years and 3 months and things are getting better every day!
Tabitha @ Saving Toward A Better Life
We eliminated food dyes, esp Red 40, and my son went from a tantrum-throwing, mood-swinging, gremlin to a regular little boy. I check everything now (and shop a lot at Aldi where they don’t sell products with artificial colors and flavors).
I have seen annatto listed before (not sure about carmine) but I thought since they were “natural” they were ok. Now I have to go back and recheck everything! Thanks for the info!
Where can you find if “natural flavors” contain annatto or carmine?
This was so informative. Thank you for posting this. We get the gremlin effect with food dye, and its so terrible I feel so bad for my sons little 4yr old body when he was ingesting those things. We are very cautious, and I had no idea about Annatto or Carmine, I will be doing much more research and being even more cautious. Thank you thank you.
Natural colors from carrots and beets etc are NOT safe for EVERYONE. It is rare, but deadly reactions to these foods do occur in some people. Like myself.
Simple Truth Organic Wjite Cheddar has no annatto and is AMAZING!