The Connection Between Annatto and Nut Allergies

Annatto Seed is a Natural Food Additive, Coloring, and Spice

crackers with annatto
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Is annatto (also known as achiote) safe if you're allergic to nuts? Annatto is a seed, and it isn't on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of nuts. However, some people with peanut or nut sensitivities do report having reactions to annatto.

While allergies to annatto are not common, they can occur. Reactions can include:

  • Skin symptoms, such as hives and itching
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

Read on to learn about annatto, where it's used, and how you can determine if you have an allergy to that ingredient in foods.

What Exactly Is Annatto?

Annatto is an orange-red dye, spice, or a food additive derived from the seeds of the lipstick tree (Bixa Orellana). It is also called achiote and can be found in Mexican and Latin American food. Annatto is found in many different types of food. It is a natural dye and food coloring, producing colors from bright yellow to deep orange.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies Bixa Orellana as a "tree or shrub." It is a woody plant that grows in tropical areas and produces seed pods full of seeds covered in bright red pulp. The pulp and/or seeds are used for making natural dyes for foods, such as cheese, popcorn, cakes, and flavored rice mixes. It's also used in cosmetics.

Annatto seed is used in South American dishes and may be known as "poor man's saffron." It can be purchased as whole seeds, powder, or in oil form at specialty markets. When used in prepared foods, it's considered to be a natural ingredient.

Food manufacturers increasingly are using annatto as a substitute for artificial food coloring. You'll find annatto in popular snack foods, such as:

  • Velveeta and other orange-colored cheeses
  • Cheetos
  • Goldfish crackers
  • Graham crackers
  • Certain seasonings, such as some Cajun seasonings
  • Some mustards
  • Some lemon-flavored cookies

Annatto's Role in Food Allergy

There has not been any large-scale study done of annatto allergy, although there are a few case studies of anaphylaxis due to annatto in the medical literature. Some people seem to be able to consume small amounts of annatto without symptoms but react from larger amounts. However, since there hasn't been much research done on annatto allergy, you should avoid it entirely if you are allergic to it.

Lipstick tree stands alone—there are no other plants in its biological family. Sensitivity to annatto could be a cross-reactivity with another nut allergy, or simply a sensitivity to the annatto itself. Because there's been so little research done on annatto allergy, it's not clear why, exactly, some people react to it.

If you think you are allergic to annatto, ask your doctor about allergy testing. Testing can help narrow down the list of possible causes for your allergic reactions.

Food Labeling for Annatto

Annatto isn't currently classified as a tree nut, so food manufacturers are not required to put a nut warning label on foods that contain annatto. They are, however, required to list annatto in the ingredient list.

Therefore, if your doctor has told you that you're allergic to annatto, you'll need to learn to read food labels to identify products that you'll need to avoid. Generally speaking, you'll need to carefully examine the ingredients for packaged cheeses and baked goods that have a tinge (or more than a tinge) of orange color.

A Word from Verywell

Some tree nuts that are closely related to each other have high levels of cross-reactivity with other nuts. For example, if you are allergic to walnuts, you are likely to also have or develop an allergy to pecans and hazelnuts. Walnuts and pecans are strongly cross-reactive tree nuts and are both members of the same family (Juglandaceae).

There are other nuts that are not related, and yet still can be cross-reactive. One group includes cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and almonds. Cashews and pistachios are both members of the family Anacardiaceae, Brazil nuts and almonds are unrelated biologically, yet are still cross-reactive. There is also some evidence of cross-reactivity between coconut, walnut, and hazelnuts, which are not related.

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