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Common Name

Latin Name Family Country/Origin
Bixa orellana Bixaceae South and Central America

Annatto is used both as a spice and a natural dye. In Mexican and Latin stores it is sometimes labeled achiote. Cooks from the Philippines refer to annatto as atsuwete or achuete. In Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique and Cuadalupe the spice is known as roucou.

In the west, the mild relatively tasteless brick-red annatto seeds are used as a colorant to give pale dishes a warm golden hue. Annatto powder is added to butter, cheeses, smoked fish and light curries to enhance both flavor and color. Annatto has a very mild earthy taste and slightly sweet fragrance, although many cooks find that it has no taste at all.

Most often, the seeds are fried in oil, coloring it dark yellow, and then discarded. The fresher the seeds, the stronger the color. Meat, poultry, fish or rice cooked in the oil adopt the yellow color and gentle flavor.

Native to Central America, the Mayans reportedly used annatto as body paint, while the Aztecs added it to drinking chocolate. In the 16th century, annatto followed the Spanish trade route to Manila, where it was added to many common Filipino dishes.

A small evergreen shrub, Bixa orellana produces bright, pink flowers and heart-shaped fruit. Upon ripening, the fruit opens and exposes a red pulp containing many seeds. The pulp is dried and used as a dye, while the seeds are separated and cleaned.

Purported Medicinal Qualities*

Historically Annatto has been used as:

  • Anti-oxidant
  • Antiseptic
  • Digestive aid
  • Fever reducer
  • Topical relief for blisters and burns

*Always check with your healthcare provider before consuming, inhaling, applying or otherwise ingesting any non-prescription of prescription natural or homeopathic substance of pharmaceutical. is not recommending, suggesting, inferring or otherwise endorsing the use of any herb or spice as a medicine or therapeutic remedy.

Culinary/Suggested Use

The most logical use for annatto seeds in modern kitchens is as a food colorant. Try heating annatto seeds in vegetable oil and then using the oil in place of a recipes' regular oil or fat ingredients to color homemade sauce, puddings, rice, sauces, etc.  Look for annatto seeds in specialty food stores and ethnic markets. Annatto seeds can also be found in a paste or powder form that dissolves in the hot oil.  Food for thought:

  • Add 2 tablespoons annatto seeds to ½ cup of oil and fry for 3-5 minutes. Discard seeds.
    Use oil as a colourful alternative to clear or pale coloured oils.

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