What Is Annatto?

Learn about this Latin American seed


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Annatto is the seed or extract of the achiote tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America. The seeds and pulp have been used for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes and are used heavily in Latin America as a dye, medicine, and as an ingredient in many foods. It is a naturally intense dye that can range in color from bright yellow to deep orange. Many commercially made food products utilize annatto for its strong hue.

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.

How Annatto Is 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 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.

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.

Annatto Used as a Food Dye

Annatto is responsible for the yellow color of butter, margarine, and cheese, all of which would be a pale creamy color without the addition of this natural dye. Cheddar cheese acquired its classic orange color from annatto in the 1800s when it was thought that high-quality cheeses were yellow due to a higher quality green grass-fed to cattle. In a funny twist of fate, many people now assume the bright yellow color comes from unnatural 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 a “poor man’s saffron” because it can be used to achieve a similar bright yellow color 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.

Annatto Used as Medicine

Although there is little information on how the seed and leaf of the achiote tree work medicinally, it is still employed to treat several different types of illnesses and ailments. People take annatto for hepatitis, diabetes, and malaria. They also use it to relieve diarrhea, fluid retention, heartburn, and fever. It is considered an antioxidant and has been used to treat burns and as a bug repellent.

Annatto Is All Natural

Annatto is a natural colorant and therefore can be included as an ingredient in foods labeled “all-natural.” Despite being all-natural, however, annatto cannot 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 and vegans.

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.