What Is Annatto? Uses, Benefits, And Side-effects

Written by Varsha Patnaik , MSc (Biotechnology), Certified Diet & Nutrition Coach

Have you ever wondered why your homemade cheese looks white while the store-bought ones have a tinge of yellow? Why does the same spice look different in color when bought from different stores? You might then find yourself worrying about artificial food color additives and their relative safety. That might actually lead you to natural food-dye options like Annatto.

Annatto is the natural dye that gives color to your favorite cheese and popcorn. It is a naturally found pigment derived from the seed extracts of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana). Going further in this article, we have a look at the benefits and side-effects of annatto along with its various uses.

What Is Annatto?

Annatto is a natural food coloring agent and condiment. It is made from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) native to South and Central America. The achiote tree yields a heart-shaped brown fruit covered with spiky hairs that contains many red seeds. The red flesh of these seeds contains the pigment-yielding carotenoids.

What Does Annatto Taste Like?

Annatto is usually available as powder, paste, liquid, and essential oil. It doesn’t have a specific taste to itself when used as a food colorant. It is also used as a condiment in certain culinary preparations, where it adds to the dish an earthy, peppery flavor with a hint of bitterness. It also has a mild floral scent similar to that of nutmeg.

Annatto has important culinary and other uses. Let’s check them out in the next section.

Uses Of Annatto

  • As A Natural Food-Colorant

Annatto’s primary use is as a natural food-colorant (1). It is used to give various cheeses their bright yellow color. The seeds are usually crushed and soaked in water to form a paste once the water evaporates. This brightly-colored paste is then added to various soups, gravies, cheese, butter, margarine, cakes, and packaged popcorn to enhance their color (2), (3).

Annatto is also used as a replacement for the expensive saffron in culinary preparations all over the world. It even is used as a food dye in other commercial packaged food products like smoked fish, microwave popcorn, beverages, and other varieties of packaged food. Annatto is non-toxic and safer than most other artificial food colorants and additives.

  • As A Condiment

Annatto is also used as a condiment to enhance the flavor of dishes. It is usually used at the beginning of cooking. It is mixed with other herbs and spices to impart a wholesome flavor. It is added to marinade pastes to render a smoky flavor to fish, meat, and poultry preparations. It also is an important ingredient in cochinita pibil, a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish.

  • As Cooking Oil

Annatto seeds are commonly steeped in cooking oil to make achiote oil or achiotina lard. It infuses the oil with its rich color and flavor. Cooking or sautéing with this oil or lard renders a beautiful rich tint and flavor to soups, stew, fish, meat, rice, and paella.

  • As Commercial Dye And Paint

The isolation of the natural yellow-orange dye from annatto has use in non-culinary industries too. The dye exhibits low toxicity and high biodegradability. It is often used in the cosmetic, textile, and leather industries ( 4). Annatto seeds are also used to create natural fabric dyes. Annatto’s use in the cosmetic industry has earned it the nickname the lipstick tree.

Annatto oil offers antioxidant benefits in body care products. It adds a rich, sunny color to creams, lotions, and shampoos. Annatto is also used in household products such as floor wax, furniture polish, and shoe polish. The dye has also been used to color wood, rattan, and wickerwork.

  • Tribal Art And Body Painting

Annatto has been used by tribals and the ancient Mayans and Aztecs for a range of medicinal and non-medicinal uses. The red dye was considered sacred in most tribal rituals. Many ancient Mayan scriptures seem to have been written with annatto juice.

Annatto has also been found to be used in ancient art, crafts, and murals as orange-red ink and color. Indigenous people and tribal communities still use the pulp emulsion in oil as hair dyes, lipsticks, or body paints. The annatto-based body paint also seems to repel insects and act as a sunscreen due to the UV-filtering properties of its carotenoid pigments (5). However, more information is warranted in this regard.

Apart from these uses, annatto is also known to offer important health benefits. Keep reading to know more.

Potential Health Benefits Of Annatto

Annatto has been traditionally used in the treatment of diabetes and certain skin conditions due to its natural antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

1. Has Antioxidant Properties

Annatto contains carotenoids and other phytochemicals that possess antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help fight toxic free radicals, which may otherwise increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, brain disorders, and other chronic health conditions (6), (7).

2. Has Antimicrobial Properties

Annatto extracts have been shown to inhibit the growth of various bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens (8). Annatto may also have antifungal properties and may help increase the shelf-life of breads (9). Pork patties treated with annatto powder were found to undergo less microbial contamination after 14 days in storage (10).

3. May Reduce Cancer Risk

Annatto’s anti-carcinogenic properties have been attributed to its various plant components. These include tocotrienols, a type of vitamin E, and carotenoids like bixin and norbixin (11), (12). Test tube studies have found annatto extracts to be effective in suppressing the growth of cancer cells. The extracts could also induce cell death in pancreas, liver, human prostate, and skin cancer cells (13), (14), (15), (11). While all these findings seem promising, more research and human studies are warranted in this regard.

4. May Promote Vision Health

Annatto is high in carotenoids that may help improve eye health (16). Pigs and mice supplemented with norbixin for 3 months reported a decrease in the accumulation of N-retinylidene-N-retinylethanolamine (A2E). A2E is a byproduct of the retinal cycle responsible for vision loss in the elderly (17). Bixin, another annatto carotenoid, was found to help prevent and treat retinal damage (18). However, further human studies are needed to recommend annatto as a potential treatment for vision issues.

5. May Help Prevent Age-Related Cardiac Issues

The tocotrienol in annatto may help reduce inflammation and age-related heart issues (19). Animal studies have also hinted at the potential effect of annatto seed extracts in decreasing blood triglyceride levels (20). However, more studies are warranted to understand annatto’s exact mechanism of action.

6. May Help Improve Bone Health

Annatto-derived tocotrienol was found to reduce inflammation and improve bone health in osteoporosis in diabetic mice (21). In another rat study, annatto tocotrienol was found to reduce complications of metabolic syndrome or bone loss caused due to osteoporosis (22).

Annatto seems to offer promising benefits for human health. Though more research is warranted, including annatto in one’s diet could be beneficial. That said, annatto may also cause certain side effects.

Possible Side Effects Of Annatto

While annatto appears safe for most people, one must also be wary of its potential side effects.

  • May Trigger Allergic Reactions

Although not very common, people allergic to plants in the Bixaceae family may experience allergies with the ingestion or use of annatto (23). In a study, a child with a history of allergic rhinitis developed serious asthmatic conditions after intake of food containing annatto (24).

Many individuals could be unaware of the inclusion of annatto as a food dye in cheese, ice-creams, and other food items. Hence, they may attribute any adverse reaction to that particular food instead of annatto itself ( 25). Hence, it is important to read through the ingredients list of any packaged or dairy product to avoid any allergies associated with annatto or other food additives.

  • May Cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome

In a study, a woman was found to experience IBS symptoms following intake of food supplemented with annatto (26 ). Her symptoms included diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating. As annatto is not scrutinized by the FDA, it is important to be aware of this possible side effect. Ensure you take it only in moderation. However, more research is warranted to further understand the role of annatto in IBS (27).

  • May Cause Issues During Pregnancy And Breastfeeding

There is less information on the safety of annatto during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Hence, it is important to be mindful of what you eat as your body is more prone to food sensitivities during this period. Stay safe and avoid annatto during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Safety Precautions To Consider Before Taking Annatto

  • Diabetes

Annatto has been found to alter blood glucose levels in certain animal studies (28), (29). Those with diabetes must be vigilant about their blood glucose levels while consuming foods with annatto. They may also be required to alter the dosage of corresponding medications. It is best to consult a doctor before including annatto in your diet.

  • Surgery

Since annatto can possibly affect your blood sugar levels, it may hamper your pre-and post-surgery conditions. Hence, it is advisable to stop taking annatto at least 2 weeks before any scheduled surgery. It is also important to notify your doctor of your annatto intake in case of any emergency surgical procedure.


Annatto is a natural food-coloring agent and condiment that has a wide range of applications in the food and art industry. Though it has a number of proven health benefits, one must also be mindful of its potential side effects – especially during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Most of the studies done on annatto are based on animals. Hence, one is advised to consume it only moderately until more research in humans is conducted.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

Is annatto the same as paprika?

No, paprika is another spice made of ground dried red pepper. Paprika is sometimes used as a substitute for annatto and vice versa as both impart the same red color to foods.

Is annatto the same as achiote?

Annatto is sometimes referred to as achiote, as it is the pigment derived from achiote seeds.

Is annatto vegan?

Yes, annatto is vegan. It is derived from the seeds of the achiote plant.


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  1. Annatto: Eco-Friendly and Potential Source for Natural Dye
  2. Studies on Application of Annatto (Bixa Orellena L.) Dye Formulations in Dairy Products
  3. Colorants in Cheese Manufacture: Production, Chemistry, Interactions, and Regulation
  4. Phytochemistry Biological Activities and Potential of Annatto in Natural Colorant Production for Industrial Applications – A Review
  5. Antigenotoxic and Antimutagenic Potential of an Annatto Pigment (norbixin) against Oxidative Stress
  6. In Vitro Antioxidant Activity of Bixa orellana (Annatto) Seed Extract
  7. Antioxidants from Annatto Seeds as Possible Inhibitory Agents of the Hepatotoxicity Induced by the Antitumor Agent Cisplatin
  8. Antimicrobial Properties of Commercial Annatto Extracts against Selected Pathogenic Lactic acid and Spoilage Microorganisms
  9. In Vitro Evaluation of Antimold Activity of Annatto Natural Dye and Its Effects on Microbial, Physicochemical, and Sensory Properties of Bread
  10. Effects of Annatto (Bixa orellana L.) Seeds Powder on Physicochemical Properties Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Pork Patties during Refrigerated Storage
  11. Annatto Tocotrienol Induces a Cytotoxic Effect on Human Prostate Cancer PC3 Cells via the Simultaneous Inhibition of Src and Stat3
  12. Bixin Triggers Apoptosis of Human Hep3B Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cells: An Insight to Molecular and IN SILICO Approach
  13. Biochemical Behaviour of Norbixin during In Vitro DNA Damage Induced by Reactive Oxygen Species
  14. Systemic Administration of the Apocarotenoid Bixin Protects Skin against Solar UV-induced Damage through Activation of NRF2
  15. Vitamin E δ-tocotrienol Sensitizes Human Pancreatic Cancer Cells to TRAIL-induced Apoptosis through Proteasome-mediated Down-regulation of c-FLIP
  16. Carotenoids in Human Nutrition and Health
  17. Norbixin Protects Retinal Pigmented Epithelium Cells and Photoreceptors against A2E-Mediated Phototoxicity In Vitro and In Vivo
  18. Annatto Prevents Retinal Degeneration Induced by Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in Vitro and in Vivo
  19. Tocotrienol is a Cardioprotective Agent against Ageing-associated Cardiovascular Disease and its Associated Morbidities
  20. Effects of Bixa orellana L. Seeds on Hyperlipidemia
  21. Annatto-extracted Tocotrienols Improve Glucose Homeostasis and Bone Properties in High-fat diet-induced Type 2 Diabetic Mice by Decreasing the Inflammatory Response
  22. Exploring the Potential of Tocotrienol from Bixa orellana as a Single Agent targeting Metabolic Syndrome and Bone Loss
  23. The Role of Natural Color Additives in Food Allergy
  24. Annatto Seed Hypersensitivity in a Pediatric Patient
  25. Allergy for Cheese: Evidence for an IgE-mediated Reaction from the Natural dye Annatto
  26. Annatto and IBS
  27. Annatto Diet and The Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  28. Hypoglycaemic Activity of Bixa orellana Extract in the Dog
  29. Bixa orellana (annatto) Exerts a Sustained Hypoglycemic Effect in Experimental Diabetes mellitus in Rats


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