(Bixa orellana L.)

The annatto tree is a tropical plant native to the Caribbean islands, continental Central America and the western part of South America. Annatto is a little-known herb in the western world.

The tree has been introduced to the tropics all over the world. Mainly and largely produced in South America (Perú, Brazil). Among the Asian countries, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have small-scale annatto production; in other tropical countries, it is mostly planted as an ornamental.

The scientific species name orellana is derived from the name of Francisco de Orellana (1511–1546), a Spanish explorer of the century who had taken part in various expeditions to the New World, securing colonies for the Spanish crown.

There are no named varieties in this crop. It is a hardy tree and does not require very fertile soil for its cultivation. An average soil which has moisture retaining capacity is suitable for the cultivation of this crop. Good drainage for optimum growth. Annatto is a tropical plant. It can be grown successfully in a warm dry climate as it cannot withstand frost.

The plant can be propagated by seeds or through stem cuttings. Seedlings are raised in polythene bags containing a mixture of soil, sand and manure. Seeds germinate in about 8-10 days and only one seedling is grown in each bag. Seedlings are transplanted when they are 20 cm tall. One year old healthy seedlings are planted in the main field at the onset of rains. Pits are watered immediately after planting. Regular irrigation depending on the climate is necessary for good growth and yield of the crop. Plant is very hardy in nature and is not attacked by any pest or disease of serious nature.

Annatto, (Bixa orellana), tree native to the New World tropics and the only species of the family: Bixaceae. Annatto grows up to 9 metres (30 feet) tall and has rose-pink flowers about 5 cm (2 inches) wide and ovate leaves about 8 to 18 cm (3 to 7 inches) long. The brown fruits, about 5 cm (2 inches) long, yield a reddish or yellowish powder that is used in a dye for butter, cheese, and oleomargarine.

Plants start flowering in the first or second year of planting. To encourage good vegetative growth and for better performance of the plantation in subsequent years, flowers are plucked off in the first two years. Only at 3 years does it bear and retain bearing for 8-10 years. Flowering September through to the end of October. Capsules or pods for a better word appear and then by January are dry enough for collection of seeds. Annatto seeds are brick red, triangular in shape, 3 – 5 mm (1/8” – 3/16”). The seeds are available whole and can often be purchased in a block or paste form. The heart-shaped fruits 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 dried fruits are packed and then dried utilising the sun. Seeds then separated and packaged for commercial use. A plant of 3 years may yield 0.5-1.0kg. Maximum yield is obtained from 4-10 years and then the yield does a decline.


Flavour & Aroma

The edible pulp around the seeds tastes similar to fresh pepper with a hint of nutmeg sweetness, mildly fruity. The aroma is very spicy. When dried the annatto seeds have a weak perfumed odour. Perfect flavour partners are black pepper, chilli peppers, cilantro, cumin, garlic, ginger, lime, and oregano

Health Benefits of Annatto

As studies continue to be conducted, annatto may become one of the most important super foods of the future.


For thousands of years, annatto has been used to cure and prevent minor and life-threatening illnesses.

Annatto’s bright yellow colour is due to its high bixin levels. Bixins are powerful carotenoids like the kind found in carrots. Most annatto is 70 to 80 percent bixin by weight. The brighter the annatto mixture, the higher the bixin content.

One of the most powerful benefits of carotenoids is their ability to protect eye health. UV rays are everywhere. While they warm and illuminate the earth, the also damage your eyes. Carotenoids like bixin enter the eye and help them to absorb harmful rays and prevent cataracts and premature blindness.

The carotenoids are also potent antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent the signs of ageing by fighting off the free radicals that destroy cells. Carotenoids also protect general health. Studies show that people who eat carotenoids from natural sources like annatto suffer from fewer chronic diseases and live longer on average than those who are missing carotenoids from their diets.

The flowery scent of the fresh seeds is caused by a tri­cyclic sesqui­terpene hydro­carbon, ishwarane.

The red colour is due to several apo­carotenoids located in the seed epi­dermis, of which bixin (9′Z-6,6′-diapo­carotene-6,6′-dioate) is the most impor­tant. Several more caro­tenoids and apo­carotenoids have been identified, e. g., norbixin. Their total amount varies strongly: Common values are 2 to 5%, but the content may reach up to 7% of the dry seeds’ mass.

The leaves have a number of medicinal properties that heal external as well as internal ailments. Annatto leaves have anti-inflammatory properties. When a decoction is made from annatto leaves and alcohol and applied topically to the skin, it soothes a number of skin disorders, infections and damage including rashes, burns, cuts and other ailments. The decoction can also be used as a vaginal douche to cure vaginal infections.

When ingested, annatto leaves provide even more benefits. Annatto leaves are one of the richest sources of tocotrienols currently known. Tocotrienols are important because they limit the liver’s ability to produce LDL cholesterol. That is the kind of cholesterol that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks.


The leaves’ astringent or anti-inflammatory properties also make it a potent digestive aid. A tea steeped from the leaves of the annatto tree help to stop diarrhea and alleviate the symptoms of dysentery. Three daily cups of tea also improve general digestive problems or discomfort.

The more scientists investigate annatto leaves, the more benefits they find. Recent studies reveal that all parts of the annatto plant have hypoglycaemic properties. A daily ingested dose of a tea made out of the annatto leaves or roots reduce blood glucose levels and prevent spikes in blood glucose after a meal.

oil annatto

Buying & Storing

While the seeds have the most important culinary use, annatto leaves were the first part of the tree used as an herb. Once harvested and dried thoroughly; the seeds are best kept in a tightly sealed jar with a lid away from direct sunlight. Purchasing annatto depending where you are is possible to order through a spice merchant or a grocery store supplier in your area. 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 bricks.


It is commonly dried, ground and infused into oil to make a concoction called annatto. Annatto is frequently added to dishes to punch up the flavour in West Indian and Latin American cuisine.

Traditionally, the crushed seeds are soaked in water that is allowed to evaporate this is called annatto seed paste which produced in South America then exported to North America and Europe, where it is used as a food colouring for many foodstuffs. Many times, this natural food colouring replaces the very expensive saffron in recipes and dishes around the world. Annatto paste is also used as a natural dye for cloth and wool and is sometimes employed in the paint, varnish, lacquer, cosmetic, and soap industries.

woolen annatto strands

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. Annatto oil will keep a few months stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

fruiting and blooming-annatto

Ideas with cooking with Annatto

A brightly coloured paste is produced which is added to soups, cheeses, and other foods to give them a bright yellow or orange colour. Much the same usage as saffron and turmeric.

Annatto’s widest commercial use is as a natural food colouring made from the seeds coating. Many orange-yellow manufactured foods are coloured with annatto. Natural and processed cheeses, butter and margarine, cakes, cookies, snacks and cereals are all commonly coloured with annatto.

The annato seeds placed into oil over a high heat; brings the dynamic distinct colour out and is used for marinades and sauces to improve colour.

In South México (Yucatán), meat is often marinated with a spice mixture called recado that derives its vibrantly yellow colour from liberal addition of annatto. The annatto seeds may be used ground (often after soaking in hot water to soften them) or in form of annatto oil. Recado is made from annatto, dried oregano, ground spices (black pepper, allspice and cumin), garlic and fiery Yucatecan chiles. They key flavour is the juice of bitter oranges (also known as sour oranges or Seville oranges) which adds a distinct, acidic fruitiness.

Recado marinated meats are wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a hot stone pit. Baking in a hot oven, pan-frying or grilling is also possible. The technique can be applied to poultry, inclusive of fish, but is most popular for pork, especially suckling pig. Food prepared this way is generally referred to as pibil.

By Spanish influence, annatto also has made its way to South East Asia. On the Philippines, the seeds are often ground to a powder and added to soups and stews; meat is often marinated with annatto-coloured seasoning’s. The colour obtained hereby is brownish–yellow, less vibrant than the colour resulting from usage of annatto oil in the Caribbean. The nearby Mariana Islands also have annatto seeds in their culinary repertoire; there, the fresh seeds are a component in spice pastes and lend a deep crimson red colour to rice or pork dishes.

Besides Philippino cooking, the cuisines of South East Asia make little use of annatto seeds. In Vietnam, batter mixes are often prepared with annatto oil to achieve a more attractive colour; annatto oil is also common for improving the colour of coconut-based curries.

The annatto leaves can also be used to colour food, but, in general, they will give only a modestly green colour much like spinach is used.

Annatto is safe for most people when used in food amounts; it can cause rare allergic reactions in those who are sensitive.


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