Annatto: The Food Coloring And Spice

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Annatto (Bixa orellana), sometimes called roucou or achiote, is derived from the seeds of the achiote trees of tropical and subtropical regions around the world.

The seeds are sourced to produce a carotenoid-based red- to-orange food coloring and flavor.

Its scent is described as “slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg” and flavor as “slightly nutty, sweet and peppery.”

What is annatto

In commercial processing, annatto coloring is extracted from the reddish pericarp which surrounds the seed of the achiote.

Historically, it has been used as a coloring in many cheeses (e.g., Cheddar, Gloucester, Red Leicester), cheese products (e.g. American cheese, Velveeta), and dairy spreads (e.g. butter, margarine).

Annatto can also be used to color a number of non-dairy foods such as rice, custard powder, baked goods, seasonings, processed potatoes, snack foods, breakfast cereals, and smoked fish.

It has been linked to cases of food-related allergies and some have complained about migraines.

Central and South American natives use the seeds to make body paint and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the “lipstick tree”.

Achiote originated in South America and has spread in popularity to many parts of Asia. It is also grown in other tropical or subtropical regions, including Central America, Africa, and Asia.

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How to know if achiote is ripe?

The heart-shaped fruit are brown or reddish brown at maturity, and are covered with short, stiff hairs. When fully mature, the fruit splits open, exposing the numerous dark red seeds.

The fruit itself is not edible, however, the orange-red pulp that covers the seed is used to produce a reddish orange food coloring.

Achiote dye is prepared by grinding seeds or simmering the seeds in water or oil.

What does annatto taste like?

Annatto has a slightly sweet and peppery taste that can enhance the flavor of dishes. You’ll notice a nutty aroma with a hint of pepper and can also be described as floral.

Is annatto powder spicy?

Anatto powder itself is not spicy but sweet with a slight peppery taste. It is often used in spicy dishes but the spice comes from other peppers put into those dishes.

How to cook with annatto

If you want to experiment with annatto, start by using it as a rub for meats or fish. You can also add it to spice up soups, stews, and sauces.

Best annatto to buy

There are a lot of brands for spices and sauces, but this annatto powder from Badia is great to cook with and not that expensive:

Badia annatto powder

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What’s the difference between annatto and achiote?

Although annatto and achiote are the same. They are both names for the orange powder that comes from the bixa orellana South American shrub.

How to store annatto

Store annatto in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. You can also store it in the fridge to prolong its shelf life. Annatto should keep for up to 6 months.

What dishes use annatto?

Some examples of dishes that use annatto are:

-Arroz con pollo

-Puerco pibil

-Cochinita pibil

-Sopa de ajo


-Pipian verde

-Pipian rojo

What’s the difference between annatto and paprika?

Paprika is a powder made from dried peppers and it can range in color from mild red to deep purple. Annatto is made from the seeds of the achiote tree and it has a orange-red color. Both have a slightly sweet taste and can be used to add color and flavor to dishes.

Is annatto healthy?

Yes, annatto is healthy. It is a good source of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. It can also help to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.


Annatto is a great flavor enhancer to work with. You should give it a try!

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.