What Is Annatto?

Learn about the many uses of this seed

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Annatto is the seed or extract of the achiote tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America. Annatto is used heavily in Latin America as a dye, medicine, and as an ingredient in many foods. Annatto is a naturally intense dye which can range in color from bright yellow to deep orange. Many commercially made food products utilize annatto for its strong color.

How is Annatto Made?

The fruit of the achiote tree is shaped like a heart and covered with thick, spiky hairs.

As the fruit matures, the pod opens to reveal its red seeds. The seeds and pulp have been used for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes. The seeds can be ground into a powder, turned into a paste, or infused into oil. Commercially, the seeds and flesh are processed to extract the potent edible dye.

Annatto Used as a Dye

Annatto is responsible for the yellow color of butter, margarine, and cheese, all of which would be a pale creamy color without the benefit of this natural dye. Cheddar cheese acquired its classic orange color from annatto in the 1800’s when it was thought that high-quality cheeses were yellow due to higher quality green grass fed to cattle. In a funny twist of fate, many people now assume the bright yellow color comes from un-natural ingredients!

Annatto is used as a colorant in many other commercial products such as processed meats, smoked fish, beverages, and a variety of packaged food.

Annatto is also known as the “poor man’s saffron” because it can be used to achieve a similar bright yellow color to saffron without the high price. Many dishes in Central and South America, such as arroz con pollo, use annatto for the distinct yellow color. Annatto is also used to color soups, stews, and spice rubs.

What Annatto Taste Like

Annatto’s flavor can be described as earthy, musky, and slightly peppery. Annatto seeds are usually steeped in oil or ground to a powder prior to adding to recipes, rather than adding the seeds whole. Annatto is a key flavor component in many Latin American dishes.

Where to Find Annatto

Because annatto is not a common ingredient in American cuisine, it may be difficult to locate in supermarkets. Spice vendors or global markets, especially those specializing in Latin, Mexican, or Caribbean ingredients, are likely places to find it. Annatto can be purchased as whole seeds, powder, or flavored oils.

Is Annatto All Natural?

Annatto is a natural colorant and therefore can be included as an ingredient in foods labeled “all-natural.” Despite being all natural, annatto can not be labeled as “organic” unless the plants from which it is derived are grown under certified organic conditions. Because annatto is plant-derived, it is an acceptable ingredient for vegetarians.

As with all ingredients, natural or synthetic, it is possible for some people to develop allergies or adverse reactions to this ingredient. Although a few cases have been reported, widespread allergies or adverse reactions to annatto have not been noted.