Wildflowers for Jade: Annatto drama aka Annatto is the devil or turns my child into one

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Annatto drama aka Annatto is the devil or turns my child into one

Andrew Magill
It began with a free cookie from Publix. Jaden was just a little over 3 yrs old. I
was hesitant but didn't think too much of it when they offered it to him. He went all hyper in the store after that, a little more than usual but that happens. I don't know if it's the florescent lights or the chemicals they clean with or the smells or… but something in the grocery stores set him off. Only he never calmed that night, until he was whipped into an absolute frenzy. It was hours later, 1 a.m. with me trying to hold down my screaming child to keep him in the bed when it hit me. He was yelling at the top of his lungs "Help me! Somebody help me!" At the time I lived in an apartment with people living under, over, and on three sides. I had horrible visions of the police banging on my door and ripping my screaming child from my arms into the night, because it sounded like he was being tortured. 

"What the hell has gotten into him?" I wondered desperately. "It's like he's been drugged." 

Just like. He'd been drugged. 

The next day I was at the customer service desk at Publix wanting the ingredients list of that cookie. They made calls, I made calls and sent emails. Two days later it was in my hand. It was a simple and short list. I understood and ruled out every ingredient except one. What was annatto? 

Ramon FVelasquez
Annatto, if you don't know, is what makes cheese yellow. Actually if you're eating something yellow, there's a good chance it's annatto. I had no idea previously that cheddar cheese was actually white, and they dye it to be yellow. Why? 

Annatto is a natural food dye, but it's also the most allergenic of natural food dyes. Unfortunately there hasn't been much study of it, so everything I will tell you is from years of anecdotal evidence. 

My first round of research turned up some odd stories of children so allergic-yet-addicted (it so happens some people crave what they're allergic to, don't know why?) that they would only eat yellow and only wear yellow. I wasn't even sure if I believed all that, but there was enough to make me wonder just how far this connection was with Jaden. 

He did have some annatto in his diet already but not much, due to his very self-limited diet. Grilled cheese was one of his 3 staple foods, and I used yellow american. I switched to white american. There was some slight resistance but it wasn't terribly difficult for the fact that the cheese was inside the bread, and not prominent. And I fed him in front of the TV so he wasn't staring at it the whole time. 
Slowly, his speech started to improve. At that time his speech had been very twisted. Twisted is really the best way to describe it. The words were half wrong, he would say one word when he was trying to say something else. The other half weren't even real words. Not only that, but he said them all in the wrong order. 

A few days ago I watched a short video of him from that era. He was talking and I was responding, and I thought "How on earth did I DO that?? I can't make out a single thing that sounds like a word!" I can't even begin to describe the copious amounts of desperate effort it took to understand that child… I must be a saint! 

I digress. In a few weeks his words started making more sense. Less scrambled sentences. Words that were actually words. I won't say it "fixed" everything. He still needed speech therapy for two years after that. But there was a definite notable improvement that made speech therapy more effective. But was it really the annatto? It's often difficult to tell in these types of trials. I started to doubt myself, often. There was still some slight trace of it in his diet, in the vegetarian Morningstar Chick'n Nuggets he ate it's listed as an ingredient (and I tried but could not get him to switch.) But I've ascertained that it can't be very much. Sometimes I gave in to his love of Goldfish. And I regretted it. Every. Time. His speech would become twisted again, his thoughts more confused, his behavior more hyper. After enough times it was too obvious a change, when that was the only thing that changed. It had to be the annatto. 

I think of that Publix cookie as a life saver. Thank you, Publix, for dosing my child with a large enough amount of unnecessary annatto that I could finally root out something that had been too subtle in his other foods. Seriously. How else would I have figured it out? I wouldn't have. It was also a backhanded blessing that his diet at the time was so severely limited. Finding a needle in a haystack is more doable when you've eliminated most of the hay. 

Why am I writing this rambly annatto post? Because I made a mistake again. I was prepping for a long trip, and Jaden's dad offered to make a last minute run to the store for road trip snacks. There's not a whole lot he can eat on the road. White cheese to put in the cooler (we switched to provolone btw, he's loving it,) bakery bread, and … oh I don't know. He was standing by the door keys in hand. "Goldfish." 

Why didn't I ask for his veggie sticks? 

So a whole huge box of Goldfish was bought and I tossed a handful each into two baggies. A little tiny bit every 6 months or so is not *that* bad… 

Until that night, 8+ hours later we arrived at my parents house, all travel-weary and stuff. Unpack the car, talk to the parents… while Jaden snags and eats the whole rest of the box of Goldfish. 

And so begins my 5 whole days of some of the most hellish behavior I've ever had from him. I'm. Not. Kidding. 

I told my dad (or maybe screamed at my dad, it's all a blur) "He's not usually like this! If he had been, there would have never been a custody battle!" 

For the record, there was never actually a custody battle. Also for the record, it's not a bit true anyway. I was just at one of those I'm-pulling-my-hair-out moments. Was all of this really from the Goldfish? Or was it the change of scenery and routine, or stuff between me and his dad, or… 

And on day 6 I had my child back. Still hyper, smart-mouthed, and easily frustrated but no longer these things at a screaming 20 on a scale of 1-10. His true personality was back and no longer drowned out. I realized how much I had missed him. Nothing had changed but that it had been the right amount of days for a whole box of crap to get out of his system. I will never feed him another Goldfish again and will body slam anyone who comes near him with one. Just saying. 

After all this drama I realized that I can't, just can't, be the only parent of a hyper child with Autism and SPD who goes off like a baby on crack when fed annatto in the world. I might just have been lucky enough to figure it out where others haven't who weren't given a free Publix cookie at the time when their child had limited themselves to only 4 foods which happened to include chocolate chip cookies.  I'll concede that might be a rare chain of events. 

So I'm writing this for them, or you, whoever you is who is trying to figure out why your child turns into the tasmanian devil sometimes and if it could possibly be a random, unheard of, seemingly innocent food additive. 

That is all. Oh and as a word of warning to everyone else. I will body slam you if you come near my child with a Goldfish. 

"Natural food colors such as annatto extract have not been extensively investigated with respect to potential allergenic properties." Wikipedia  
"Allergy symptoms for Annatto include…
Mood changes
Behavioral changes

Food Intolerance Network Factsheet: Annatto
There are a lot of anecdotes here that describes similar physical and behavioral reactions to annatto.

Read my most recent post on annatto: Taking Annatto Seriously 


  1. DBT in ConnecticutDecember 9, 2012 at 1:00 PM

    No, you are not alone, and I thank you for writing this and adding one more anecdote to my thin file on behavioral effects of annatto. My story is that my 12 y.o. son is affected by annatto. He becomes hyper, irritable, short tempered, easily frustrated, and prone to major anger outbursts that last for hours. He is totally irrational at that stage and has little ability to regain control.
    My suspicions about food coloring began when my son was in first grade. He was having more trouble than usual with self control and focusing right around spring conferences. I had noticed changes at home, too, that he couldn't seem to sit still at dinner, etc. After trying to figure out what had changed, I realized that I had introduced a new snack to his daily lunch box: Gogurts (or similar brightly colored yogurt). We eliminated the colored yogurt and his behavior seemed to return to his "normal." Now my son is an active boy, but he does not have ADD, ADHD, autism spectrum, etc.
    So time passed. I would avoid artificially colored foods when easy to do so, but I would still allow candy when he got it at parties, Halloween, etc. In general, we don't eat a ton of junk food and almost never eat fast food, but we are not on an all natural diet. Then, at some point, I added Goldfish to my list of things to avoid. He had also been “into” Goldfish at various times, and I always felt that they seemed to make him crazy - hyper, that is. Periodically we would try them again (regular Goldfish don't have artificial "dyes" ) but the trial always ended poorly. I stopped buying them all together, but I didn't know what ingredient was the problem.
    Fast forward to 5th grade. Things were going normally until late November when I learned that my son was having major behavioral issues in class: bad attitude, disrespectful behavior, etc. This had been going on for weeks, but not since the beginning of the year. What had changed? Was it the bright red allergy pill that he was now taking? (He’s always been more impulsive during allergy season.) We stopped the allergy meds but things did not immediately improve as I had hoped. Then I thought about his new snack du jour: "Cheezits." I knew it had no "dyes" but discovered that annatto was in Cheezits and Goldfish. He had been eating annatto at 10 a.m. in class every day for weeks!
    Now I won't buy anything with annatto, and I am trying to educate my extended family and friends. I have not insisted that my son avoid all foods with colors, especially things like treats at school. He loves candy and sweets and, frankly, does not have the self control to self monitor. He is, however, beginning to believe me, and that is at least a step in the right direction. Episodes like the one this Thanksgiving are helping to convince us all. Thanksgiving was at my house and I knew all the foods were annatto-free except possibly the Betty Crocker pie crust mix that listed "color added." I had called the 1-800 number to ask about that. Unfortunately I could not get an immediate answer, as it was proprietary, but a representative said it was not one of the numbered "dyes" (they would need to list that) and she would get back to me. After having a fine day that included eating a HUGE piece of pie, my son totally lost it, seemingly out of the blue. We wondered about the pie crust. Sure enough I received a call the next week, and the crust mix did, in fact, have annatto. So we're totally convinced that annatto is the devil and turns my son into one. The other numbered dyes we're less certain about, but no room for that now.
    So that's my story. Sorry it is so long, but it's nice to have an audience that understands. I hope others will share their experiences, too. Companies and the FDA need to know. Good luck!

    1. DBT,
      Thank you for commenting and sharing your story! I have a feeling that this is something that probably affects way more kids than people actually know. Sadly I imagine that a lot of them might even be on psychiatric drugs because of it. I know we could easily have been candidates if I had never made the connection (though I wouldn't have done it, I can see why people could be led to that.)

      Since we've been back from that fateful trip his father and I have been very diligent in getting all dyes out of his diet, and the change has been astounding. Then he attended a birthday and ate a couple of "strawberry" cupcakes, so we had a few days of waiting for him to stabilize again.

      I didn't even think about pie crusts. I guess a good rule of thumb (besides "it's in everything" ugh) if it's processed and yellow or beige in any way, it likely has annatto in it.

      Pie crusts are easy from scratch though (and taste better IMO.) Here's my recipe:

      Pie Crust

      2 1/2 c all purpose flour
      1 cup cold butter
      1 tbs cinnamon
      3 tbs sugar (about)

      mix, refrigerate. Press into pie mold, refrigerate.

      I hope your Christmas holiday goes better. :)

    2. Butter can have annatto also! Be careful with that! I would be perfectly happy with no artificial colors at all! I don't care what it looks like as long as the food is safe and healthy!

  2. Mmm, cinnamon and ginger... must try. Will check the butter, of course. BTW, I've seen annatto in seasoning mixes. My rule of thumb is to check everything. Then, of course, we must hope that if it's in there, it is listed.

    My biggest challenge has been trying to figure out how to completely eliminate all dyes from a willful, food-oriented 12-year-old's diet. I brought in homemade dye-free choc. chip banana muffins with choc. glaze (to look like cupcakes)to his class's holiday party today, but he still ate a Munchin and candy cane from another parent. He said, "But only one, Mom." I don't think we can achieve dye-free unless he commits to being dye-free. I'll have to read how others do it with older kids.
    Peace to you and your family.

  3. Oh thank goodness I found this article. I too, accidentally made the correlation between annatto and depressed, crying, irritable, hyper behavior in my son. We knew parties were a disaster, then we had the camping monster, and then the swimming lesson monster. After cutting out 'artifical' colours, flavours and preservatives things improved a little. Finally, I realised the only common factor was annatto in cheeses, flavoured biscuits, custards and cut them out. Magic.

    Now, at 14, we are faced with "camps" where the allergy section of the form is not taken seriously (eg. "Oh, you said he was "sensitive", so we weren't worried" "He can read the label himself." (not when its served to him on a plate, or out of a container): "Annatto? What's that?").

    He is compliant and very careful of his diet, because he hates feeling so bad. Still, when faced with the 'double blind' of camp, he has had repeated Annatto reactions. Camp staff have fed him cereal, crumbed fish, fruit jellies, and icecreams, telling him they were fine, only to have him have anxiety, distress, and more recently, angry outbursts. When he reports that he feels as though he's been affected by Annatto, responses vary from immediate support, to ridicule, accusations of poor self control, and punishment. After his most recent Annatto reaction - a three day cumulative dose of fruit jellies, he also came home with gut ache and hives, so I wonder if the reaction covers more than we had realised.

    How many of our ADHD, Aspergers, anxiety kids are really Annatto reactors like our children?

    1. DBT in ConnecticutJanuary 28, 2013 at 5:40 PM

      Anonymous, thanks for sharing your son's story. Most reports are from parents of young children so your 14-year-old's story will be affirming for my 12-year-old son.

      To follow up on your last statement: You ask how many of our ADHD/Asperger/anxiety kids are really annatto reactors. What about those individuals who "snap" and have an angry, violent event? I'm from Connecticut and in light of Newtown, I wonder. After such an event we ask about the video gaming habits of the offender, etc. What about diet? Were any of these individuals sensitive to annatto or other foods? Could a binge in an individual with other mental health factors be the tipping point?

      So thankful we here are now aware and can help our children steer clear of annatto...

  4. DBT in ConnecticutMarch 4, 2013 at 7:47 PM

    To Gaynell, Anonymous, and others dealing with annatto intolerance,

    I recently contacted the U.S. FDA Office of Food Additive Safety and they appear to be unaware of any adverse health effects associated with annatto, nor have they seen a "pattern" of concerns through their medical reporting system. I made a report today. I encourage other consumers of American products to report their adverse events associated with annatto consumption (see link below). The FDA will never recognize a pattern if we don't report our experiences. Wouldn’t it be great if our reports led to some real research?


    As for the best resource on annatto intolerance (to date), the Food Intolerance Network out of Sydney Australia has a great web site with an annatto fact sheet and separate 29-page document called “Reader Reports” listing cases like ours. I’ve included the links below.


    Please help educate the FDA, manufacturers, and other parents about annatto. Because it is so difficult to identify the source of the problem or even contributing factors when a child has behavioral problems, there must be other kids out there like ours who continue to eat annatto. The fact that this side effect is so easy to miss makes it that much more serious. How many irritable, angry, out of control, anxious, depressed, and distressed kids are out there just because manufacturers want to put a little color in our food? Presently, too many. Labeling is not enough. Annatto should not be used in food. Let’s make it happen.

    1. Thanks for keeping us updated, DBT. I do consider this serious side affects, especially considering that we have no idea how many children exhibiting an annatto sensitivity are being drugged, restrained, and who knows what else - for "behavioral" issues. Even when they aren't, it's just not an easy life.

      Unbelievable what a difference it's made in quality of life and advances in learning since we started treating this like a serious allergy.

      Will look into the links and continue to try to get the word out. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for posting this. There's so much we don't know and will only find out when we tell each other. Also, if it can cause a reaction in a 14 year old, why are we limiting it to children? How many adults have this problem as well? I know some extremely impulsive adults. These allergic reactions that effect our children don't magically go away when they turn 18 or 21. Some allergies we outgrow, but some we don't. We need to test ourselves when our kids exhibit these problems. How many times have we had an uncomfortable feeling after eating something, but paid little attention to it? With all the GMO studies, even 'natural' doesn't always mean anything anymore.

    Thanks again and keep passing the information around!

    1. Even "organic" doesn't help with this one.

      You're right, this isn't just a childhood issue. Adults who have meltdowns and violent outbursts should also try a two week elimination to see if it helps.

      It needs to be taken seriously because it is serious.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  6. I found this blog while searching for tantrums and allergies and goldfish. My son is 6 and I have noticed for YEARS that he goes crazy after eating goldfish crackers and it lasts for several days even after just one serving. No one believes me. Not the pediatrician, not a therapist, not my son's teacher, not family, not friends. They all have looked at me as if I were crazy because they are "just crackers." I finally feel a little validated after doing some Internet research! I will have to print this to show others! Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad that you're finding some answers. Once I started treating it as a real allergy and checking the labels on everything, the difference is outstanding. Sorry about the naysayers. People forget that we're not so advanced yet that we know everything. You know that you're on the right track. Good luck.

    2. DBT in ConnecticutJune 5, 2013 at 6:12 PM

      Glad you found us. Yes, it feels so good to be validated. My 12 y.o. is having a classic annatto trandrum upstairs as I type this, but unfortunately I have not pinpointed the source yet. Typically his reaction is within hours, but it has occurred up to 3 days later. Please make a report to the FDA (see above), and share your story with anybody and everybody. There must be others out there, and the more we talk, the more we will present clues for others. Finally, do read all labels. I've found annatto in green (mint) ice cream and even mustard (which should have enough color from the mustard, you would think!) Good luck.

  7. Thank you. We stopped goldfish crackers a few months ago...not knowing what was in them that caused my son such issues/behavioral problems, but definitely seeing a continuous and consistent reaction to the product. We used to joke... you want a terror, feed him goldfish. Now that he's six, it's not funny anymore...it's causing issues at school - goldfish is a major snack in the classroom...and we decided that we would stop the snack and see once and for all if it was truly the problem... and guess what, like you, it is/was. We are just now figuring out that it's actually the annatto...it's the only ingredient in the snack that is different than other products - they need to do some testing... it sounds like it's affecting our boys! Thanks so much, I'll spread the word ;O

  8. Have never bought food with food coloring , but the other day was at restaurant and after left had very fast heart rate for about 2 hours, called the company and they said the chicken had annatto for coloring. Did read it can raise blood sugar levels. Would a tiny bit of baking soda undo the reaction to accidental intake of it?
    WOnder if was the annatto or the CoQ10 from 99c store

  9. Oh thank god for ppl that know what I am going through!!!!! My 7 yr old with ASD can't have Red 40yellow 5,6 Annatto , carmine, or beet juice! Turns into a monster!

  10. I smile as I read your post -- I'm one of the someones you posted it for -- two years ago I noticed that the difference between "yellow" american cheese and "white" american cheese made by the same company was the difference that caused 3+ HOURS of manic behavior and screaming fits in my 5-year-old - kicking, biting, scratching, punching... now, we read ingredients whenever we can, and he knows the word 'annatto', and he knows it's a 'natural orange food coloring'...

    I believe that if we both eat the same thing and it has annatto in it, then 20 minutes later I "crash through the floor" and he "crashes through the ceiling". I know that I don't get the 'adrenaline shakes' any more when I should, so I wonder if annatto sets off something with the adrenal system, but mine's all 'tuckered out' but his can be on high alert for hours?

    We're both also really affected by heat - just last week he had a blood test that showed he was dehydrated and had mildly low sodium and mildly low chloride levels. It was during our first heat wave of the summer. Eh, now I'm just throwing darts at a blank wall... but if you found yourself here in the comments section then you'll understand!!

    AND he had/has an expressive speech delay - it still comes and goes these days - sometimes he's skipping the 1st half of words (like "-hamas" instead of "Ba-hamas") and even if you ask him to repeat the word he won't know he's saying it wrong. His teacher noticed that sometimes he just cannot get words out to explain things, even though he had a great vocabulary.

    I will figure this out :) It might take me a few more years - two years ago his doc declared that my son is "unable to offer any insight [into how he is feeling]" because my son was bouncing off the walls and talking gibberish. I offered to come back another day with a cheeseburger to his pedi's office to show the 'before' and 'after' - they said 'no'... it would have helped, I'm sure, for them to see a bright well spoken kid transform into a raving maniac!

  11. I went searching online for annatto after eating the cheese sauce from Taco Bell. Dyes don't affect my children, but they do me, and really affect my fibromyalgia. Just a little from Taco Bell has given me a migraine, fever, flushed cheeks and nauseousness. I totally understand the bad behavior from the children because that is what red#40 does to me! Only I can't act out as a child throwing a tantrum. :)