What Is Annatto? | Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Annatto, a natural food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, has been used for centuries in many parts of the world. From South America to Africa and Asia, people have been using annatto as a spice and even as a medicine. With its bright orange color and unique flavor profile, annatto has become increasingly popular in recent years.

But What Is Annatto? What are Their Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects? This guide will explore everything you need to know about annatto, from its traditional uses in cooking to its potential health benefits and risks.

What is Annatto?

Annatto, also known as Achiote, is a natural food colorant derived from the seeds of the Bixa orellana plant. The scientific name for this plant is Bixa Orellana L. Annatto has been used by indigenous people in South America for thousands of years to add flavor and color to their food. Annatto’s main component is bixin, which accounts for about 80% of its coloring properties. Another compound found in annatto is norbixin, which gives it its yellowish hue.


Annatto has a distinct appearance that makes it easy to identify. The vibrant red-orange color of annatto powder is especially eye-catching, almost resembling turmeric or paprika. Other than that, annatto paste looks more like clay than anything else – thick and smooth in texture with an intense orange hue.


The history of Annatto dates back to the ancient Mayan civilization, where it was not only used for its vibrant color but also as a remedy for various ailments. The plant’s medicinal properties were so revered that it featured prominently in Mayan mythology, with some legends even depicting the god of agriculture creating Annatto from his own blood.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 16th century, they quickly noticed the importance of Annatto among local populations. They began exporting the plant’s seeds to Europe, where it found widespread use as a coloring agent for cheese and butter.

How does it work?

What Is Annatto

So, how does Annatto work?

  • Annatto contains two main pigments: bixin and norbixin.
  • These pigments are fat-soluble, meaning they dissolve in oils and fats rather than water.
  • When annatto is added to a dish that contains fat or oil, such as butter or olive oil, the pigments are released and dispersed evenly throughout the food.
  • The result is a beautiful golden color that can range from pale yellow to deep orange depending on the amount of annatto used.
  • In addition to its coloring properties, annatto has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes as well.

How Annatto Tastes?

The taste of annatto can be slightly nutty with a hint of earthiness. It has a mild flavor profile that is not overpowering, which makes it an ideal ingredient for adding color to dishes without significantly altering their taste. Annatto also has a slightly sweet taste similar to caramel or vanilla, which adds complexity to its flavor profile. When used in small amounts, annatto can enhance the natural flavors of other ingredients in a dish. For example, it can complement the savory taste of meats like chicken or pork and balance out rich and creamy sauces.

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Uses of Annatto

It has been used by indigenous people in Central and South America as medicine, food, and dye. Here are some of their uses:

As a food coloring

Here are some of the most common uses of annatto as a food coloring:

Cheese: Annatto is commonly used to give the cheese its distinctive yellow or orange color. It is added to the milk during the cheese-making process.

Butter: Annatto can also be used to add color to butter, giving it a more appealing look.

Margarine: Similar to butter, margarine manufacturers use annatto extract to give their product an attractive yellow hue.

Rice: In Latin American cuisine, annatto is often added to rice dishes for both flavor and color.

Sauces: Annatto can add an attractive hue to sauces such as tomato sauce or barbecue sauce.

Baked goods: Annatto can be used in baked goods like bread, cakes, and pastries to add a natural yellow or orange hue.

What Is Annatto

As a spice

When using this as a spice, you must know that it has a mild peppery taste with nutty undertones. To release its full flavor potential, you need to infuse it in oil or another fat-based ingredient before adding it to your dish. You can also grind the seeds into powder form using a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Annatto works well when added to marinades for meats such as chicken or pork.

Health Benefits Derived From Annatto

Beyond its culinary uses, Annatto benefits are numerous.

Rich In Antioxidants

Antioxidants are compounds that protect our cells against damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can harm our DNA and contribute to various diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Annatto is particularly rich in carotenoids, which are plant pigments that act as antioxidants in the body. In fact, it contains one of the highest levels of bixin and norbixin among all-natural sources. These two carotenoids have been shown to have powerful effects on reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in animal studies.

Supports Eye Health

Annatto contains high levels of carotenoids (as said before), which are antioxidants known for their ability to protect the eyes from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.

Several studies have linked the consumption of annatto with improved visual acuity and reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). One study conducted on rats found that those fed a diet rich in annatto had significantly lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress markers in their retinas compared to those fed a regular diet. Another study conducted on humans showed that taking an annatto supplement improved visual performance and reduced the symptoms of dry eye syndrome.

Promotes Heart Health

The antioxidants present in them promote heart health by reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and preventing oxidative damage to cells. Studies have found that consuming annatto can help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. In addition to its cholesterol-lowering effects, annatto may also help reduce blood pressure by improving circulation and dilating blood vessels. This can ultimately lead to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.


The anti-inflammatory properties of annatto may help reduce chronic inflammation, another risk factor for cancer development. Chronic inflammation is associated with many types of cancers, including colon, breast, prostate, and lung cancer. Annatto contains tocotrienols which have been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells by up to 84%. Tocotrienols also increase apoptosis in cancer cells, which means they cause programmed cell death.

What Is Annatto


Antimicrobial agents are substances that kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Bixin and norbixin present in Annatto, exhibit antimicrobial activity against various microorganisms. These compounds work by disrupting the cell membrane of microorganisms leading to their death. Thus, consuming annatto may help protect against infections caused by these pathogens.

Boosts Immune System

One of the key components in Annatto is Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. These harmful molecules are produced by environmental toxins such as air pollution and cigarette smoke. By neutralizing free radicals, Vitamin E can reduce inflammation in the body and support healthy immune function.

Annatto also contains carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin which are known for their potent antioxidant activity. These compounds help prevent oxidative stress on cells and tissues while improving vision and cognitive function.

Help Improve Bone Health

Here are some key ways in which Annatto can help improve bone health:

  • Rich source of Vitamin E: Annatto contains high levels of vitamin E, which helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress that can damage bones and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Anti-inflammatory properties: The antioxidants present in Annatto have anti-inflammatory properties that prevent chronic inflammation, reduce bone loss, and promote healthy bone growth.
  • Enhances calcium absorption: Calcium is essential for building strong bones, and annatto has been shown to enhance calcium absorption by increasing levels of vitamin D in the body.

Some Other Benefits

  • Annatto has been used traditionally as a digestive aid, it may help promote healthy digestion by reducing inflammation in the gut.
  • Due to its high carotenoid content, Annatto can help improve skin health by protecting it against damage from UV rays and oxidative stress.

Possible Side Effects Of Annatto

While it is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, some people may experience adverse effects after consuming annatto. Here are some of these:

  • These side effects may include allergies, skin irritation, digestive problems, and respiratory issues.
  • Allergic reactions to annatto are rare but possible. Symptoms may include hives, itching, swelling of the face or tongue, and difficulty breathing.
  • Skin irritation caused by annatto can result in rashes or blisters on the skin. This condition is more common in people who handle annatto directly rather than those who consume it indirectly through food products.
  • Annatto has been known to cause gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps.
  • High doses of annatto can lead to yellow or orange discoloration of the skin that usually goes away once consumption stops.

Safety Tips To Consider Before Taking Annatto

When it comes to taking annatto, it’s important to prioritize safety. Before incorporating this natural food coloring into your diet or supplement routine, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Here are some of the top safety precautions you should consider:

What Is Annatto

Start With A Low Dose

Like any supplement or medication, annatto can have side effects if taken in large doses. Some people may experience stomach discomfort, diarrhea, or allergic reactions when consuming high amounts of annatto. To avoid these adverse effects, it’s essential to start with small amounts and gradually increase the dosage over time.

Before consuming this, you should read the label on your bottle of annatto carefully to determine the recommended dosage. Most supplements will include instructions on how much to take daily based on your age and weight. Start at the lowest dose possible and monitor your body’s response carefully.

Avoid During Pregnancy And Breastfeeding

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid consuming it due to potential risks to their health and the health of their babies. The compound called bixin has been linked to adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes. Consumption of annatto during pregnancy can lead to preterm birth, low birth weight, and impaired fetal growth. Bixin has been shown to cross the placenta and accumulate in breast milk. This means that infants may also be exposed to the harmful effects of annatto through breast milk if consumed by nursing mothers.

Overall, it is best for pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid consuming annatto altogether as there are potential risks associated with its use during this time period.

Check Your Medical Condition

If you have a history of allergies or asthma, it’s especially important to check with your doctor before consuming the Annatto. Some people may develop hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing after eating foods containing this ingredient. It’s also possible for Annatto to trigger migraines or other types of headaches. While checking with your doctor about any existing medical conditions, it’s also important to read product labels carefully when purchasing foods that contain annatto. Some products may contain higher amounts of the ingredient than others, which could potentially lead to negative side effects if consumed in excess.

Wrapping “What Is Annatto? Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects”

With the growing demand for Annatto, it is vital to ensure sustainable cultivation practices are employed to preserve its supply for future generations. As consumers, we should be more aware of the ingredients in our food and choose products that use natural colorants like Annatto instead of synthetic ones. By doing so, we can support local farmers and promote a healthier diet while enjoying delicious foods with vibrant colors.

FAQs On Annatto

Is Annatto good for the kidneys?

Annatto is a good source of antioxidants, which may help protect the kidneys.

Is Annatto FDA approved?

Yes, annatto is FDA-approved for use as a food colorant.

Is Annatto safe for animals?

It is generally considered safe for animals, but there is always the potential for adverse effects if it is ingested in large amounts.

Is Annatto bad for you?

Annatto is not bad for you, but it does have some potential side effects.

Iram Khan