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Annatto

AnnattoMore Herbs & SpicesCookbooks

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 colouring and flavour. Its scent is described as “slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg” and flavour as “slightly nutty, sweet and peppery”.

Open fruit of the achiote tree

Open fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), showing the seeds from which annatto is extracted

In commercial processing, annatto colouring is extracted from the reddish pericarp which surrounds the seed of the achiote (Bixa orellana L.). Historically, it has been used as colouring 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 colour 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 colouring and flavouring 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 colouring. Achiote dye is prepared by grinding seeds or simmering the seeds in water or oil.

History and Use of Annatto

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

Annatto Seeds

Achiote pods, showing the red seeds


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 achuete (atsuete) and is used as food colouring in traditional dishes.

Annatto as Food Colouring

In Australia it is commonly used in cereals, snack foods, dairy foods including yoghurts, icecreams and cheeses, snack foods and a wide range of other foods. It can also be called bixin and norbixin.

It is the only natural colour that has so far as been found to cause as many adverse intolerance reactions as artificial colours and to affect more consumers that artificial colours. It has also been associated with rare allergic reactions. Adverse reactions to annatto can include skin, gastrointestinal, airways and central nervous system reactions. Refer also to Annatto Benefits and Precautions.

Using annatto for colour has been a traditional characteristic of Gloucester cheese since the 16th century when producers of inferior cheese used a colouring 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 colour 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 coloured 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 colour. 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 and Australia, annatto has the E number E160b. In the United States, annatto extract is listed as a colour additive “exempt from certification” and is informally considered to be a natural colouring. Foods coloured with annatto may declare the colouring in the statement of ingredients as “coloured with annatto” or “annatto colour.”

The yellow to orange colour is produced by the chemical compounds bixin and norbixin, which are classified as carotenoids. The fat soluble colour 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 colour, the more yellow it is; a higher level of bixin gives it a more orange shade.


Achiote Powder

Achiote and annatto are used interchangeably and are the most common names for a product extracted from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub/tree. After macerating in water, the pulp surrounding the seeds is made into cakes for further processing into dyes, while the seeds are dried and used whole or ground as a culinary spice.

Achiote Powder

Achiote Powder

The product goes by many names : urucul by the Tupi-Guarani Indians of the Amazon region, achiote in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs in Mexico, annatto by the Caribs, and achuete by Filipinos, is better known today as achiote by Mexicans and Caribbeans. It’s known as roucou in Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, and Guadalupe.

Achiote is native to the tropical areas of the Americas including the Caribbean and Mexico. The Spanish brought Bixa orellana from the Americas to Southeast Asia in the 1600s where it is now a common food ingredient. It’s also produced in India and West Africa in this day and age.

Traditional Uses for Achiote/Annatto:

Annatto was, and still is, used as a culinary spice, food colourant, commercial dye, and for medicinal purposes. Caribbean natives were adding achiote to their dishes for flavour and colour long before Europeans arrived. However, they also used it as cosmetics, fabric dye, body paint, sunscreen, insect repellent, and as medicine. Some historians theorise that the term “red-skins” comes from the use of achiote as body paint, because it is a natural dye and turns the skin a reddish colour. The Aztecs used annatto seeds to intensify the colour of their chocolate drink.

Culinary Uses

Commercially, annatto is used to add yellow colour to chorizo, butter and margarine, cheese, and smoked fish. On the Spanish speaking Caribbean islands it’s used to make yellow rice and sometimes added to sofrito.

In the French Caribbean it’s used to make blaff recipes.

Achiote powder mixed with other spices and herbs can be turned into a paste to marinate and give a smoky flavour to meats, fish and poultry. A popular product made with ground achiote is sázon, available in small foil packets ready to use in your recipe. Most sázon brands contain MSG, but Badia does not.

Achiote seeds are steeped in cooking oil (achiote oil) or lard (achiotina), infusing them with colour and flavour. Sautéing in or cooking with the oil or lard colours the rice, paella, meats, soups, stews, fish, and sometimes yuca dishes.

Taste and Aroma

When used in small amounts primarily as a food colourant, annatto has no discernible flavour. However, when used in larger amounts to add flavour, it imparts an earthy, peppery flavour with a hint of bitterness. Achiote seeds give off a slightly floral or peppermint scent.

Buying and Storing

Annatto is sold several ways: as seeds, ground, as a paste, or infused in cooking oil or lard. Look for it the spice isle or ethnic food aisle of your grocer. Packing includes bottles, bags, or vacuum-sealed locks.

Ground or powdered achiote is often mixed with other herbs, spices, and even cornflour (cornstarch). Read the label if you have food allergies.

Buy brightly coloured red-orange seeds. Do not buy dull or brown seeds as they are past their prime. They are too old and have lost their flavour.

Both seeds and ground annatto will keep a long time, up to 3 years, under proper storage. Keep in an airtight glass container and store in a dark cabinet away from light. Achiote oil or achiotina will keep a few months stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

Substitute for Achiote seed

For 1½ teaspoons achiote seed substitute as follows:

  • 1 teaspoon achiote powder ;
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric and ½ teaspoon sweet paprika (lacks the tart flavour) ;
  • for colour only use a teaspoon crushed safflower florets.
  • or for colouring use yellow food colouring

Availability in Australia

  • Annatto seeds can be purchased from some online merchants






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John Doe
Professor of Botanics
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, John is a superior specialist in growing palms and exotic plants.
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