Annatto – Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Annatto is a form of food coloring derived using the seeds of the achiote plant ( Bixa Orellana).

Although it might not be popular, 70% of the natural food colorings are derived from Annatto. Alongside its culinary benefits, Annatto has been used in many regions of South and Central America for art, as a cosmetic ingredient, as well as to treat medical illnesses.

This article outlines the uses, benefits, and adverse effects of Annatto.

What is Annatto?

Annatto is an orange and red coloring for food or condiment that is made from the seeds of the Achiote tree ( Bixa Orellana) that is found in tropical areas of South as well as Central America. It is known by many names, such as Achiote, Achiotillo, Bija, Urucum, and Atsuete.

It is most often utilized as an organic food coloring since it provides a vibrant hue that can range from deep orange-red to yellow, similar to saffron and turmeric. Its color is due to carotenoids, pigments in the outer layer, and other vegetables and fruits, including tomatoes and carrots.

Also, Annatto is utilized as a flavoring agent to enhance food taste because of its spicy and sweet flavor. Its scent is best described as peppery, nutty, and floral. It can be found in various types, such as powder and paste, liquid, and even as an essential oil.

Annatto is a food coloring agent and condiment created by removing the seeds from an achiote plant. The vibrant color is derived from carotenoids.

Uses of Annatto 

Annatto has been utilized for many centuries for different reasons. However, it is crucial to remember it is designed to be inhaled or applied to the skin. It is not recommended to swallow them since this could be harmful.

Annatto has been used for centuries to serve various purposes, such as cooking, art, and medicine. However, its primary use nowadays is for food coloring agents and adding flavor to food dishes.

It was traditionally utilized to paint the body, like sunscreen, an insect repellent, as well as to treat ailments like ulcers, diarrhea, heartburn, and skin issues.

Nowadays, it’s primarily utilized for its natural coloring as well as for its flavor profile. For example, this natural food ingredient is present in various industrial food products, like cheeses, butter, custards, margarine, cakes, and baked goods.

In many regions around the globe, Annatto seeds are ground into a paste or powder and then mixed with other seeds or spices in many recipes. It’s also an essential ingredient in cochinita pibil, an old-fashioned Mexican slow-cooked pork dish.

In addition, the seeds are used to create essential oils, which are utilized in aromatherapy. They may also provide antimicrobial benefits.

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Health Benefits Derived From Annatto

Natural food colorant has been linked with a variety of health benefits. As opposed to synthetic food colors, Annatto is a source of antioxidants as well as other benefits.

Annatto has been associated with various health benefits, including healthier eyes, improved overall health of the heart, as well as less inflammation. It could also possess antioxidant, anticancer, as well as antimicrobial properties.

Anticancer Properties

The preliminary research suggests that Annatto may have the potential to fight cancer.

For instance, studies in test tubes have shown that extracts of this food coloring could inhibit the growth of cancer cells and cause cells to die in the prostate, liver, pancreas, pancreas, skin cancer cell lines, and other cancer types.

The anticancer potential of Annatto is connected to the compounds that it has, like the carotenoids norbixin and bixin and tocotrienols, which is a form of vitamin E. Although these results are encouraging, further human studies must examine the impacts.

Antioxidant Properties

Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize potentially harmful molecules referred to as free radicals. They could harm your cells if levels are excessively high. Researchers have discovered that damage caused by high levels of free radicals can be linked to chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart diseases, brain disorders along with diabetes.

Annatto is a plant-based compound that contains a myriad of compounds with antioxidant properties, such as carotenoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and tocotrienols. 

Antimicrobial Properties 

The research suggests that Annatto could contain antimicrobial qualities. In tests on test tubes, the annatto extracts have been shown to block the growth of various bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia E. coli. In a separate test-tube experiment, Annatto killed various fungi like Aspergillus Niger Neurospora Sitophila along with Rhizopus Stolonifer. In addition, adding the dye to bread slowed the development of fungi and thus extended bread’s shelf-life.

Similar to this, one study showed pork patties coated with the annatto powder showed less growth of microbes than patties that were not treated after 14 days in the freezer. The research suggests that food colorings could play a role in food preservation.

Promote Eye Health

Annatto is rich in carotenoids that could improve the health of your eyes. Particularly, it’s rich in carotenoids such as bixin and norbixin, both located in the outermost layers of seeds. They also contribute to its vibrant yellow-to-orange color.

In an animal study, norbixin supplement for three months reduced the accumulation of N-retinylidene-N-retinylethanolamine (A2E), a compound which has been linked to age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD is the most common cause of irreversible blindness in seniors. However, humans need to be studied before Annatto is recommended for this purpose.

Other Benefits 

Annatto could also provide other health benefits, such as:

  • It could help with improving the health of your heart. Annatto is a rich food source for vitamin E substances known as tocotrienols which can help prevent heart problems caused by age.
  • It could help reduce inflammation. Numerous studies in test tubes suggest that annatto-derived compounds could decrease inflammation markers in a variety of ways.

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Possible Side Effects of Annatto 

Annatto is generally considered safe for most people; however, there is not enough evidence to guarantee the safety of certain populations. Overall, it appears to be safe for the majority of individuals.

  • While it’s not that common, individuals may have an allergic reaction, particularly if they have known allergies to plants belonging to the Bixaceae family. Itching, swelling, itchiness, lower blood pressure and hives, and stomach discomfort.
  • In certain situations, Annatto can trigger the symptoms of IBS or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Breastfeeding or pregnant women are advised not to consume more than the amounts typically consumed in the food industry, as there aren’t enough studies to prove its safety.
  • When taken through the mouth, ingestion of annatto seed extract is likely safe for most people when consumed in large quantities. The powder from the leaf is possibly safe when used in dosages of 750 mg throughout the 12 months. There’s not enough information to establish if the annatto plant is safe to use in more significant quantities found in medicine or what the potential side adverse effects could be.

Warning: If you experience any unpleasant adverse effects after consuming the food coloring or any products containing it, take them off immediately and consult your physician.

Precautions and Warnings

When applied to the skin 

There isn’t enough evidence-based information to know whether Annatto is safe for use or what the potential side consequences could be.

If taken via the mouth 

When taken by mouth: Annatto seed extract is likely to be safe for the majority of people when taken in small quantities. The powder from the leaf is possibly safe when taken at dosages up to 750 mg daily throughout the 12 months. There’s not enough evidence to determine if annatto seed is suitable for use in the higher doses found in medicines or the possible side consequences.

When it is inserted into the eyes 

There’s not enough reliable information to determine whether Annatto is safe to use or the possible side effects. 

Pregnancy and breastfeeding-feeding 

There’s not enough information that is reliable to determine whether Annatto is safe to apply when you are pregnant or breastfeeding. AGRIKULTURE TODAY recommends being on the safe side and avoiding it.


Annatto might raise or decrease blood sugar levels. Be aware of your blood sugar if you have diabetes and are taking the annatto drug. The dose you take for diabetes, it is possible that the system needs to be altered.


Annatto might affect blood sugar levels. This has raised concerns that it could affect the control of blood sugar levels during and following surgery. Take a break from using Annatto for medicine at least two weeks prior to a scheduled procedure.

Bottom line

Annatto is a food ingredient that has been associated with many benefits, such as reduced inflammation, better eyesight, cardiovascular health, antioxidant as well as antimicrobial and anticancer properties. However, studies of human subjects about its benefits as well as adverse effects are not available, and further studies are needed before it is advised for health-related reasons.

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