Annatto comes from a tree named achiote or bixa orellana, a 15-foot tree native to tropical Central and South America.
The fruit produced by the achiote tree is heart-shaped and not edible. It becomes reddish brown when ripe and is covered with soft spines, similar to a chestnut. At full maturity, the hull splits open and reveals many dark red seeds inside. These are the seeds that have the coloring power.
American Indians traditionally used the seeds to paint their body to protect from stings of insects and from the sun but also as a ritual against the evil spirit. Some legends also assume that the term Redskins comes from the use of annatto as body paint by Amazonian Indians.
Annatto has a very high vitamin A content and is very rich in beta-carotene (about 100 times more than carrot).
An oil rich in carotenoids (beta-carotene) pigments such as bixines and norbixines, is extracted from achiote seeds.
Annatto is known as a food coloring. It is added to the natural coloring of processed foods such as cheeses and sausages, jams and butters, soups and sauces, candies and chocolates.
A few cheeses like mimolette, cheddar, edam or red leicester, owe their orange color to annatto. It is also used to dye haddock fillets and is one of the ingredients of recado rojo, a spicy mexican sauce.
In everyday cooking, its taste is not very pronounced in small quantities. However, when used in larger quantity, it brings a slightly peppery taste close to nutmeg. Beware, when using an excessive amounts, annatto is rather bitter!
Indeed, it has antivenom properties, especially in case of a snake bite. It is also anti-inflammatory and may be used to treat fever, hepatitis or skin problems, and it has antimicrobial and antifungal properties.
When used in a decoction, annatto helps against inflammation of throat, lungs, and benign chest pain.
Achiote leaves are also useful. They can be applied on the forehead to relieve headaches and treat eye infections.
Achiote oil is very rich in beta-carotene, it stimulates the production of melanin, the natural pigment that gives the skin its color. It contains ellagic acid that neutralizes free radicals through its antioxidant properties. Free radicals are responsible for the appearance of the first signs of age.
It also protects against ultraviolet rays. Because of its many virtues, achiote oil is an excellent treatment before and after sun exposure.
Achiote oil can be found in many cosmetics such as eye shadows, powders, lipsticks, bronzing powders and foundation creams. Moreover, it has moisturizing, astringent, anti-acne, antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
Where can you find annatto (achiote) in the United States?
You can easily find annatto in Hispanic markets. Some grocery stores, especially in or close to Hispanic neighborhoods should carry this spice as well. It is also possible to buy achiote online, whether the seeds, whole or ground, the oil or the paste.