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Annato seeds/Achiote

Bixa orellana


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Annatto, or Achiote, as it is usually called in Latin American countries, is a relatively tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters. The pinkish white flowers develop into bright red heart shaped, exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in orange-red pulp. The bush produces copious amounts of fruit: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.


Annatto is widespread throughout the tropical regions of central and South America where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name of this plant 'Bixa orellana' does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. The genus name is probably derived from the Portuguese 'biche' meaning beak which alludes to the beak shaped seedpods, while the species name is given in memory of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally discovered the Amazon.

codice2 (10K)Although the fruit of the Annatto tree are inedible it is often cultivated for its flowers and more especially for its seedpods. The pulp of the Annatto fruit yields a bright red dye, which has long been used both as a body paint and dye stuff for textiles or food. The ancient Maya and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus ascribed to it sacred connotations. It was also used to make ink and virtually all the ancient Maya scriptures were penned in annatto juice. The seeds also have a reputation as a female aphrodisiac and are believed to make bulls used for bullfighting more aggressive. The whole tree has a long history as a valued medicinal plant that has been used to treat a wide variety of conditions from fevers to cancer.

Indigenous people still use the pulp for 'cosmetic purposes', as hair dye or lip stick, hence the English common name 'Lipstick tree'. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods. Its use as a food dye has persisted until today. Annatto is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter and spreads, candy and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry however is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.)

achiote (8K)The seed pods are processed by separating the pulp form the seeds, which are washed and used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste known as 'Achiote Recado' is a popular flavouring in Yucatan cuisine (southern Mexico). The meat is marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Even though Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, some people appear to be highly allergic to it and lobby against the use of this additive. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of allergic reactions between, a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used to colour hair-oils, shoe polishes, floor polishes, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics and pharmaceutical ointments as well as textiles, wool, leather and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. In particular the leaves appear to have wide ranging applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhoea, dysentery and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe an irritated stomach that is suffering from excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers are said to be a useful expectorant for new born babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is said to fight parasites and allies the pains derived from intestinal parasites. Externally the extract of the seeds wards off insects and protects the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system and increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and generally reputed to have anti-tumor activity, which are thought to be due to the high anti-oxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoides have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and have been used for the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems.

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To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, by themselves they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring they are best when processed as a recado - see below:

Achiote Recado

This recipe is an adaptation based on the traditional recado recipe, which utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges) which are difficult to get, hence the improvisation. Achiote recado is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico which is used to marinade meats, poultry and fish. The finished product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but - taste the difference

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow with alum mordant, yellow ochre with copper mordant, brown with iron mordant, orange with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.