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Open fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), showing the seeds from which annatto is extracted; photographed in Campinas, Brazil (January 2009).

Annatto (/əˈnæt/ or /əˈnɑːt/), 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".[1]

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.[2]

History and use[edit]

Achiote pods, showing the red seeds; photographed in Kourou, French Guiana (October 2006).

Annatto's Linnaean designation (Bixa orellana L.) was named after the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana during his exploration of the Amazon River.[3]

Annatto is believed to originate from Brazil where it is known as urucum.[4] 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.[5][6][7] 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.[8]

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.[9][10]

Food coloring[edit]

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.[11]

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[9]) 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.[12]

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.[13][14] Foods colored with annatto may declare the coloring in the statement of ingredients as "colored with annatto" or "annatto color."[15]

Bixin, the major apocarotenoid of annatto[16]

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.[17] The seeds contain 4.5–5.5% pigments, which consists of 70–80% bixin.[16] Unlike beta-carotene, another well-known carotenoid, annatto based pigments are not vitamin A precursors.[18] The more norbixin in an annatto color, the more yellow it is; a higher level of bixin gives it a more orange shade.

Research and uses[edit]

Annatto is a rich source of tocotrienols, compounds similar in structure and function to the lipid-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E. The tocotrienols from annatto are the subject of current nutritional and medical research since these compounds are thought to have anti-angiogenic effects.[19] The annatto seed, unlike palm oil or rice bran, does not contain tocopherols so is a natural source of tocotrienol compounds with antioxidant activity in vitro.[20]

Annatto (achiote) is also among the herbs in Colombian folk medicine thought useful to treat microbial infections. The sesquiterpene ishwarane from achiote exhibited moderate anti-fungal activity in laboratory studies.[21][non-primary source needed] Norbixin isomers found in annatto extracts are responsible for the antimicrobial activity specific for Gram positive bacteria.[22][23][non-primary source needed]


Annatto is safe for most people when used in food amounts; it can cause rare allergic reactions in those who are sensitive.[24][25] 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.[26] 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.[27]

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. Twenty-six percent of the patients reacted to this color four 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%).[28]


  1. ^ "Encyclopedia of Spices". Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  2. ^ Smith, James (2006). "Annatto Extracts" (PDF). Chemical and Technical Assessment. JECFA. Retrieved 3 February 2012. 
  3. ^ Levy, Luis W.; Rivadeneira, Diana M. (2000). "Annatto". In Lauro, Gabriel J.; Francis, F. Jack. Natural Food Colorants Science and Technology. IFT Basic Symposium Series. New York: Marcel Dekker. p. 115. ISBN 0-8247-0421-5. 
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  5. ^ "Jamaican Annatto". Archived from the original on 11 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  6. ^ Smith, Nigel J.H. (2005). "Geography of Crop Plants" (pdf). Geo 3315, Lecture Notes: Part 2. Department of Geography, University of Florida. 
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  8. ^ "Colorants Used During Mexico's Early Colonial Period". Stanford University. 1997. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  9. ^ a b "Spice Pages: Annatto". Gernot Katzer. 19 February 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
  10. ^ "Common Spices in Modern Philippine Recipes". Archived from the original on 15 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  11. ^ "'British Cheese Board'". Archived from the original on 26 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  12. ^ "New Crops from Brazil". Purdue University. 1990. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  13. ^ "Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations part 73". U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  14. ^ "CFR Title 21". U.S. FDA. 1 April 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  15. ^ "21CFR101.22". Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Volume 2. FDA. 1 April 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  16. ^ a b "Executive Summary Bixin". National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. National Institutes of Health. Nov 1997. Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  17. ^ Smith, James; Wallin, Harriet (2006). "Annatto Extracts: Chemical and Technical Assessment" (PDF). FAO. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  18. ^ Kuntz, Lynn A. (4 August 2008). "Natural Colors: A Shade More Healthy". Food Product Design. Virgo Publishing, LLC. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  19. ^ Miyazawa, Teruo; Nakagawa, Kiyotaka; Sookwong, Phumon (2011). "Health benefits of vitamin E in grains, cereals and green vegetables". Trends in Food Science & Technology 22 (12): 651. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2011.07.004. 
  20. ^ Chisté, RC; Mercadante, AZ; Gomes, A et al. (2011). "In vitro scavenging capacity of annatto seed extracts against reactive oxygen and nitrogen species". Food Chem 127 (2): 419–26. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2010.12.139. PMID 23140681. 
  21. ^ Raga, Dennis D.; Espiritu, Rafael A.; Shen, Chien-Chang; Ragasa, Consolacion Y. (2010). "A bioactive sesquiterpene from Bixa orellana". Journal of Natural Medicines 65 (1): 206–11. doi:10.1007/s11418-010-0459-9. PMID 20882359. 
  22. ^ Galindo-Cuspinera, V; Westhoff, DC; Rankin, SA (2003). "Antimicrobial properties of commercial annatto extracts against selected pathogenic, lactic acid, and spoilage microorganisms". Journal of food protection 66 (6): 1074–8. PMID 12801012. 
  23. ^ Galindo-Cuspinera, Veronica; Rankin, Scott A. (2005). "Bioautography and Chemical Characterization of Antimicrobial Compound(s) in Commercial Water-Soluble Annatto Extracts". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53 (7): 2524–9. doi:10.1021/jf048056q. PMID 15796589. 
  24. ^ "ANNATTO: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings". WebMD. 30 July 1999. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  25. ^ Magee, Elaine (9 July 2010). "What's Up With Food Dyes?". Healthy Recipe Doctor. WebMD. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  26. ^ Myles, Ian A.; Beakes, Douglas (2009). "An Allergy to Goldfish? Highlighting Labeling Laws for Food Additives". World Allergy Organization Journal 2 (12): 314–316. doi:10.1097/WOX.0b013e3181c5be33. PMC 2805955. PMID 20076772. 
  27. ^ "AllergenOnline Database". University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved 3 February 2012. 
  28. ^ Mikkelsen, H; Larsen, JC; Tarding, F (1978). "Hypersensitivity reactions to food colours with special reference to the natural colour annatto extract (butter colour)". Archives of Toxicology. Supplement. Archives of Toxicology 1 (1): 141–3. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-66896-8_16. ISBN 978-3-540-08646-8. PMID 150265. 

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