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Annatto, sometimes called roucou or achiote, is derived from the seeds of the achiote trees of tropical and subtropical regions around the world. The seeds are sourced to produce a carotenoid-based yellow to orange food coloring and flavor. Its scent is described as "slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg" and flavor as "slightly nutty, sweet and peppery".
In commercial processing, annatto coloring is extracted from the reddish pericarp which surrounds the seed of the achiote (Bixa orellana L.). Historically, it has been used as coloring in many cheeses (e.g., Cheddar, Gloucester, Red Leicester), cheese products (e.g. American cheese, Velveeta), and dairy spreads (e.g. butter, margarine). Annatto can also be used to color a number of non-dairy foods such as rice, custard powder, baked goods, seasonings, processed potatoes, snack foods, breakfast cereals and smoked fish. It has been linked to cases of food-related allergies.
Annatto is commonly used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines as both a coloring and flavoring agent. Central and South American natives use the seeds to make body paint and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the "lipstick tree". Achiote originated in South America and has spread in popularity to many parts of Asia. It is also grown in other tropical or subtropical regions of the world, including Central America, Africa and Asia. The heart-shaped fruit are brown or reddish brown at maturity, and are covered with short, stiff hairs. When fully mature, the fruit splits open, exposing the numerous dark red seeds. The fruit itself is not edible, however the orange-red pulp that covers the seed is used to produce a yellow to orange food coloring. Achiote dye is prepared by grinding seeds or simmering the seeds in water or oil.
Annatto is believed to originate from Brazil where it is known as urucum. It was probably not initially used as a food additive, but for other reasons, such as body painting, treatment for heartburn and stomach distress, sunscreen, repelling insects, and to ward off evil. It has long been used by indigenous Caribbean and South American cultures where both fruit and tree are popularly called achiote or bija. The ancient Aztecs called it achiotl, and it was used for Mexican manuscript painting in the sixteenth century.
In India, annatto is known as "sindoor" and is considered auspicious for married women. Applying annatto to the forehead next to the hairline indicates that a woman is married. In the Philippines, it is called atsuete and is used as food coloring in traditional dishes.
Using annatto for color has been a traditional characteristic of Gloucester cheese since the 16th century when producers of inferior cheese used a coloring agent to replicate the orange hue achieved by the best cheesemakers. During the summer months the high levels of carotene in the grass would have given the milk an orangey color 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 colored cheddar made in Scotland, all using this natural dye.
Many Latin American cuisines traditionally use annatto in recipes of Spanish origin that originally call for saffron; for example, in arroz con pollo, to give the rice a yellow color. In Venezuela, annatto (called locally onoto) is used in the preparation of hallacas, perico, and other traditional dishes. In Brazil, both annatto (the product) and the tree (Bixa orellana L.) are called urucum, and the product itself may also be called colorau.
In the European Union, annatto has the E number E160b. In the United States, annatto extract is listed as a color additive "exempt from certification" and is informally considered to be a natural coloring. Foods colored with annatto may declare the coloring in the statement of ingredients as "colored with annatto" or "annatto color."
The yellow to orange color is produced by the chemical compounds bixin and norbixin, which are classified as carotenoids. The fat soluble color in the crude extract is called bixin, which can then be saponified into water soluble norbixin. This dual solubility property of annatto is rare for carotenoids. The seeds contain 4.5–5.5% pigments, which consists of 70–80% bixin. Unlike beta-carotene, another well-known carotenoid, annatto based pigments are not vitamin A precursors. The more norbixin in an annatto color, the more yellow it is; a higher level of bixin gives it a more orange shade.
Annatto is a rich source of tocotrienols, antioxidants that are similar in structure and function to vitamin E. The tocotrienols from annatto and other sources like palm oil and rice bran are the subject of current nutritional and medical research since these compounds are thought to prevent cancer due to their anti-angiogenic effect. The annatto seed, unlike palm oil or rice bran, does not contain any tocopherols so it is a natural source of pure tocotrienol compounds.
In developing countries, particularly in Colombia, people with low income and less access to modern medicine resources use folk medicine and natural remedies for the treatment of common infections. Achiote is also among those herbs used in Colombian folk medicine to treat infections of microbial origin. In addition to the known health benefits exerted by carotenoids, a bioactive sesquiterpene from achiote exhibited moderate anti-fungal activity. Norbixin isomers found in annatto extracts are responsible for the antimicrobial activity specific for Gram positive bacteria.
Annatto is safe for most people when used in food amounts; it can cause rare allergic reactions in those who are sensitive. Annatto has been linked to cases of food-related allergies, but it is not one of the "Big Eight" allergens (cow's milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat), which are responsible for more than 90% of allergic food reactions. The Food and Drug Administration and experts at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska do not consider annatto a major food allergen.
Natural food colors such as annatto extract have not been extensively investigated as potential allergens. In one 1978 study of 61 patients suffering from chronic hives or angioedema, 56 patients were orally provoked by annatto extract during an elimination diet. A challenge was performed with a dose equivalent to the amount used in 25 grams (0.88 oz) of butter. 26% of the patients reacted to this color 4 hours after intake, worse than amaranth (9%) or synthetic dyes such as tartrazine (11%), Sunset Yellow FCF (17%), Food Red 17 (16%), Ponceau 4R (15%), erythrosine (12%) and Brilliant Blue FCF (14%).
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