Common Food Additive Might Help Protect from Sun Damage

Health Writer

Annatto, a common food coloring and additive found in Latin America, might help prevent skin damage from sun exposure according to researchers at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona.

Bixin is a reddish-orange compound found in Annatto, which is a common ingredient in Latin American cooking. Annatto is derived from the seeds of the achiote fruit. Because of it’s color, it is also used as a food coloring. Although Annatto is not commonly used in the United States, you have probably eaten foods colored with it—for example yellow cheddar cheese usually receives its color from annatto.

Researchers Georg Wondrak and Donna Zhang recently published a study in Free Radical Biology and Medicine showing that the compound Bixin helped prevent sun damage to the skin in mice. In the study, the researchers injected some mice with bixin (because they weren’t sure if mice metabolized the additive in the same way humans did). Both mice injected with bixin and mice without bixin were exposed to UV radiation. Those mice that were injected with the bixin did not experience the same level of skin damage as those without the bixin.

The compound works by activating a signaling pathway in the skin that tells the body to produce antioxidant defense enzymes. The researchers point out that this is different that products that are meant to kill skin cancer cells, such as topical skin cancer treatments, or external protectants, such as sun screen products. The bixin works from the inside out - working to prevent sun damage rather than healing sun damage that has already occurred.

Because annatto and the achiote fruit is commonly found in Latin American foods and is already approved as a safe food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), further research isn’t going to require approval to use the substance. This will allow further studies, including testing bixin in humans, to move ahead without too much difficulty.

In the book, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Phyllis Balch, lists some of the nutritional benefits of annatto. She states the fruit contains amino acids, calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamins B-2 and B-3 and the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin C. These antioxidants might be what helps to prevent skin damage. She also indicates the plant contains several phytochemicals which have been used in medicine to prevent and treat disease.

Besides as a food coloring, the achiote plant has been used as a Colombian folk medicine to treat infections, such as pharyngitis, gingivitis, bronchitis and as a topical medicine for infected wounds and topical ulcers, according to herbcyclopedia.com. In Trinidad and Tobago, it has been used to treat skin diseases in dogs.

For more information on alternative and complementary treatments for skin cancer:

Researching Alternative Treatments for Skin Cancer
Complementary Treatments for Skin Cancer

References:

Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 2003, Phyllis Balch