By Rachael Link, MS, RD
With a rich red color and distinct peppery taste, annatto has been used for centuries to enhance palatability and make dishes that pop on the plate.
Although food coloring has earned a bad reputation for its potential adverse effects on health, annatto stands apart as a natural way to give foods color and flavor without the long list of added chemicals and dangerous ingredients. Plus, this natural dye can even provide a few bonus health benefits. Chock-full of carotenoids and other beneficial compounds, it has been shown to kill off bacteria, strengthen bones and even speed up wound healing.
While there are some people who may want to avoid annatto, it can be a nutritious, healthy and colorful addition to the diet for most.
What Is Annatto?
Annatto is known by many different names worldwide. You may know it as achiote, onoto, atsuete or urucum depending on where you’re from.
Derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, it has a vibrant color that makes it perfect for use as a coloring agent and condiment. Similar to paprika, saffron and turmeric, it can lend foods a bright color that ranges from yellow to deep orange.
The bold color comes from carotenoids, which are plant pigments that are found in the coating of the seed. It is most often ground up into a powder or paste form for use. Its color can also be extracted from the seed and then added to foods as a dye.
Some also use annatto to boost the flavor of certain dishes. It has a mild, peppery flavor when used in large amounts as well as a nutty and floral scent.
Annatto is native to the tropical regions of the Americas. Historically, it was used as a body paint, sunscreen and even a natural insect repellant.
Today, it is used around the globe in both home kitchens and industrial factories alike and is cultivated as far as Africa and Asia. Still, it remains especially prominent in Latin American, Caribbean and Filipino cuisines as a staple ingredient.
Is Annatto Safe?
You’ve probably heard about the dangers of food dyes, with some reports even linking consumption of food dyes to cancer. However, keep in mind that these negative side effects are generally associated with artificial food dyes that are pumped full of chemicals and questionable ingredients.
Annatto is derived from a seed and is a natural food dye that is generally considered safe. However, it may come with some side effects, and some people may need to limit their intake to avoid undesirable symptoms.
Although uncommon, some people may have an allergy or intolerance to annatto. A case study published in the Annals of Allergy reported on a patient who suffered from symptoms like hives, swelling and low blood pressure just 20 minutes after eating a type of cereal that contained annatto dye. (1)
Others with an intolerance have reported that it has triggered symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a common disorder that can cause a range of digestive symptoms. One woman, for example, suffered from symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating for three years before discovering that it was the annatto found in her coffee creamer that was setting off her symptoms. (2)
If you notice negative symptoms after consuming a product that contains annatto, you should discontinue use and consult with your doctor. For most people, however, it can be consumed safely with no adverse side effects.
1. Fights Bacteria
Annatto possesses powerful antimicrobial properties that can help kill off some of the harmful bacteria that cause infection and disease. One study by the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences at the University of Maryland College Park measured the effects of annatto extract against several types of bacteria and found that it was especially effective against a few of the specific kinds of bacteria that cause staph infections and foodborne illness. (3)
Another study published in the International Journal of Pharmacognosy found similar results, showing that the extract was able to fight against certain strains of bacteria due to its antimicrobial properties. (4)
Thanks to its antimicrobial effects, annatto may be able to help stave off bacterial infections and promote better health.
2. Contains Antioxidants
Annatto is rich in antioxidants, or compounds that help neutralize the effects of harmful free radicals that can build up and cause damage to cells. Antioxidants have been linked to a decreased risk of several chronic health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. (5, 6)
Adding annatto seeds to foods may also help supply natural antioxidants. In one study published in the Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources, annatto seeds added to pork patties were found to cause an increase in antioxidant activity. (7)
Annatto is also high in carotenoids, or natural plant pigments that work as antioxidants to promote better health. It’s especially high in bixin, a carotenoid that has been studied extensively for its potent antioxidant properties. (8)
3. Prevents Bone Disease
Annatto is high in tocotrienol, a form of vitamin E that some studies show could help with keeping bones strong and healthy. In one animal study out of Malaysia, treating rats with annatto tocotrienol helped prevent some of the symptoms of osteoporosis, like bone loss and decreased bone formation. (10)
Although more research is needed to look at the effects on human bone health, annatto may be a promising complementary treatment for osteoporosis when paired with a balanced diet, regular physical activity and adequate vitamin D.
4. Keeps Your Heart Healthy
Heart health is an integral component of overall health. Your heart pumps blood throughout your body to supply nutrients to your tissues and keep your body functioning. Some research has found that bixin, the main carotenoid found in annatto, could help protect the health of your heart by reducing several risk factors of heart disease.
In a 2015 animal study, rabbits were fed a high-cholesterol diet that was supplemented with bixin. Bixin helped reduce the build up of plaque in the arteries by 55 percent. It also decreased several inflammatory markers, dropped triglycerides by 41 percent and increased good HDL cholesterol by an impressive 160 percent. (11)
In combination with a nutritious diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables plus a healthy lifestyle, annatto could be beneficial in optimizing your heart health.
5. Aids Wound Healing
Besides boosting the flavor and aroma of foods, annatto seeds are sometimes also ground up and applied topically to help enhance the health of your skin. Bixin, in particular, is a carotenoid that has been shown to help speed up the wound-healing process in some studies.
In one animal study, bixin was found effectively reduce inflammation, boost skin cell regeneration and improve the healing of ulcers in the mouths of rats. (12) Another test-tube study conducted at the University of Arizona’s College of Pharmacy & Arizona Cancer Center showed that applying bixin to skin cells prevented damage from UV light. (13)
Although it’s primarily found in food, annatto is also added to many skincare products and face masks to help nourish and improve skin.
6. Promotes Eye Health
Annatto is high in carotenoids, plant compounds that can benefit many aspects of health. In particular, though, carotenoids are known for their ability to help protect against eye-related disorders.
Norbixin is another type of carotenoid that is found in annatto and has been linked to improved eye health.
One animal study showed that supplementing rats with norbixin for three months reduced the accumulation of a compound associated with macular degeneration, a type of eye disease that leads to vision loss. (14)
7. Protects the Liver
Known for its ability to detoxify, produce proteins and metabolize drugs, a healthy liver is a crucial component of overall health. Thanks to their antioxidant properties, the carotenoids found in annatto may have a protective effect on the liver.
In one study, rats were injected with a chemical that induced liver damage as well as bixin, the main carotenoid in annatto. Bixin was able to effectively prevent liver damage and oxidation by neutralizing harmful free radicals. (15)
Although more research is needed, these results suggest that incorporating annatto seeds into a healthy diet could help keep your liver in tip-top shape.
Should You Use Annatto?
Annatto can be an easy and natural way to add an extra dose of color and flavor to dishes while also packing in some extra antioxidants and health benefits. It’s also a great alternative to artificial, chemical-laden food dyes that have been shown to have negative side effects when it comes to health.
It may not be for everyone, however. If you do try it, consider starting with a small amount and working your way up to make sure that you’re able to tolerate it.
However, while it may trigger intolerances and allergies in some people, it can be a healthy addition to the diet for most.
How to Use Annatto:
Annatto is found in many types of processed foods to add color and brighten them up. Some common sources include:
- Ice cream
- Salad dressings
- Yellow cheeses, like American, cheddar and Velveeta
- Ready-to-eat roasted/barbecue chicken
- Microwave popcorn
- Powdered donuts
Of course, I do not recommend consuming processed foods. However, you can also use annatto in home, healthy versions of these common snacks and foods, leaving out all the artificial and harmful ingredients.
It is also a conventional ingredient in many cosmetics and skincare products and is even used to color some capsules, pills and vitamins.
Annatto is also used to impart its bold color, flavor and aroma in many types of cuisines around the world.
It’s responsible for the brightly hued rice dishes found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and used in many traditional dishes like hallacas in Venezuela and cochinita pibil (Yucatan barbecued pork) in Mexico, among others.
If you’re interested in adding annatto to your kitchen pantry, here are a few unique recipes that you can try out:
Annatto is safe for most people, but it’s always best to introduce new foods slowly and gradually increase your intake to assess tolerance.
Some people may have an intolerance or allergy to annatto. If you develop any adverse side effects like itching, swelling, diarrhea or abdominal pain after consuming a product containing annatto, you should discontinue use and talk to your doctor. Those with irritable bowel syndrome may want to be especially mindful of their intake, as it has been known to trigger symptoms in some cases.
For those who do have a sensitivity, be sure to check the label of food products and also avoid ingredients like bixin, norbixin, bixa arellana, achiote and bixaceae.
Final Thoughts on Annatto
If you’re looking for a simple way to bump up the color and flavor profile of a dish while adding in a few extra health benefits, annatto might just be what you’re looking for.
This natural food dye is frequently used as a condiment, seasoning and flavor enhancer in cuisines around the world.
From enhancing antioxidant activity to keeping your heart strong, annatto can be an excellent dietary addition to satisfy your taste buds, enhance palatability on your plate and provide a few added benefits to your health.
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