What Is Annatto? Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects


Achiote, also known as bixaorellana, is a shrub that is native to Central and South America that is known as the best-known source of annatto color, a natural food coloring. While the flowers of the achiote are white or bright pink, the bright orange red color of the annatto food coloring is due to the waxy coating or arils of the achiote seeds.


Adding annatto color to food products lends them a bright color almost similar to that imparted by the addition of saffron or turmeric. This vibrant color is due to the presence of carotenoid pigments in the arils. Other examples of fruits and vegetables that also contain carotenoid pigments are carrots and tomatoes. 

Why is Annatto Used as a Food Color

Apart from the bright and inviting color lent by annatto to the food products, it imparts a slightly sweet and peppery taste to the dishes. Annatto also has an aroma that is nutty, peppery, and floral and adds to the appeal of the final dish. It also offers the advantage that it can be used in the form of a powder, paste, liquid, or as an essential oil. It is used to add color to a number of food products, including butter, cheese, margarine, ice creams, meats, and condiments.

Possible Health Benefits of Annatto

While not specifically proven, there are a lot of potential health benefits that are said to be associated with annatto food coloring

  • Antioxidant – Annatto is made up of compounds like carotenoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and tocotrienols. All of these compounds are known for their antioxidant properties which help to neutralize free radicals associated with chronic health conditions such as cancers, brain disorders, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Antimicrobial – As per test-tube studies, addition of annatto extracts has shown to inhibit the growth of various bacteria and fungi that are responsible for food spoilage and for causing food poisoning. This indicates that annatto may be used as part of the process of food preservation to increase shelf life of food products. 
  • Improving Eye Health – Carotenoids present in carrots contain Vitamin A and are the reason why they are said to be good for the eyes and prevent the development of cataract. Annatto also contains carotenoids. However, there is no conclusive evidence that use of annatto extracts has a direct connection to eye health.
  • Heart Health – Tocotrienols (compound in Vitamin E) reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and lower cholesterol levels. Annatto contains tocotrienols and therefore may protect against age-related heart issues. 

Uses of Annatto

Annatto is now predominantly in use as a natural food coloring with a pleasant flavor. Apart from being used as a food color, annatto seeds are used in paste or powder form as a condiment along with other spices or seeds in many parts of the world. Annatto is also considered to be a hygienic component- the alternative to saffron.

For the preparation of tasty popcorn, smoked fish, and processed food, the cook uses this special condiment or all-inclusive natural food colorant.

Annatto is a popular natural food colorant and it is used for making cooking oil. Raw seeds of this flower for food coloring are pressed to extract juice to prepare achiotina lard. For enrichment of cooking oil, experts try to mix the annatto seed extract with the lard to add color and fragrance to the oil. 

The uses of annatto are varied and people like to opt for this natural component to produce the biodegradable dye for fabric tinting. In the non-culinary industry, Annatto is prioritized for leather processing. The non-toxic dye is user-friendly for manufacturing the textile and leather. 

The ancient Mayan dynasty valued annatto in the past. They prepared life-saving medicines using this antioxidant and non-toxic condiment. Besides, Annatto food colorant improved the artwork.

Tribal communities collected special paint color which was the outcome of the combination of annatto and other elements.

Other uses of annatto include being used as pigment for body paints, as an insect repellent, as a sunscreen, and for treating disorders, such as heartburn, diarrhoea, ulcers, and skin issues. Annatto seeds are used for making essential oils that are inhaled or applied to the skin as part of aromatherapy.

Side Effects of Annatto 

Annatto is not a fully protective component. It has also a number of side effects to endanger your health. Studies have confirmed that risk of consuming annatto is palpable. The lab test shows that the annatto in the food enhances the allergens to boost up the allergic reaction to affect the patients.

The intake of foods containing annatto extract increases the chance of being attacked by rhinitis and asthma. Apart from this, exposure to annatto accelerates the risk of the onset of bowel syndrome. A woman conceiving baby is under the risk of having the symptoms of infection in the womb at the prenatal trimester. 


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