Annatto Seeds: The Colorful Spice

Origin of annatto seeds

The name used for annatto in Latin America is achiote; its seeds have been widely used throughout Central and Latin America since the time of the Aztecs and Mayans. It gets its Latin name (bixa orellana) from Francisco de Orellano, the 16th-century discoverer of the Amazon. Both the Aztecs and Mayans viewed annatto as sacred; they used it as body paint and as a substitute for blood in their rituals. They also used annatto as ink for writing and as a medicine for treating various conditions.

The bright reddish-orange color that annatto provides to food made it an effective food dye in addition to its other uses. The Aztecs added it to their xocolatl (chocolate) to give it a deeper color as well as to various other foods.

Early Europeans in Latin America began exporting annatto in the 18th century. India and Southeast Asia would be major producers of the spice by the 18th century. The fact that annatto was oil-soluble made it less effective as a textile dye than as a food coloring. It was used to color a range of foods ranging from butter to egg products and seasonings.

Annatto is still used as a food dye today. While the spice fell out of favor for a time because synthetic food colorings were cheaper, the public’s aversion to these colorings has made it a popular option again. It is presently one of the most widely used industrial food colorings.

Cooking with annatto seeds

Annatto flavor profile

Annatto is often described as having a flavor that is simultaneously peppery and nutty with a slight flowery scent. Some people are also able to detect smoky notes and a mild sweetness. Its flavors pair well rice and with poultry. It also complements other seasonings like onion and bay leaves.

Annatto health benefits

Annatto provides a range of health benefits due to the compounds it contains; these include:

  • Carotenoids: Annatto is an excellent source of carotenoids with the main one being bixin, which is fat-soluble. Annatto is typically between 70 and 80 percent bixin by weight. The carotenoids in annatto are also effective antioxidants, which help to stave off macular degeneration and cataracts thereby preserving ocular health.
  • Antimicrobial compounds: In rural parts of Colombia, annatto is a popular folk medicine used to treat conditions like gingivitis, bronchitis and infected wounds. Its effectiveness is due to its anti-microbial properties. Annatto is also effective against candida albicans.
  • Calcium: Annatto seeds contain high levels of calcium, which means that they are effective for increasing the density of bones thus strengthening them.
  • Folate: Annatto seeds are rich in folic acid, which means that they can be helpful for preventing neural tube defects in newborn babies.

Common uses of annatto seeds

Because the taste of annatto seeds is relatively mild, one of the ways to use them is in a recado, which is a spice paste used in southern Mexico. In this paste, ground annatto seed is combined with chili powder, oregano, and other spices. This paste can be used to marinate fish, chicken or pork. It is especially popular for the Yucatan specialty called conchinita pibil, which is a slow-roasted pork dish.

Annatto seeds are also popular for use in arroz con pollo. You can make an oil infusion with annatto seeds by steeping them in hot oil. In addition, annatto oil can be used as a finishing oil for soups and in rice dishes.