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Annatto and Achiote -- What Are They?

Updated on July 23, 2012

In a nutshell... they are the same thing! (Actually, in a seed pod they are the same thing.)

Achiote shrubs produce seed pods containing small brownish seeds prized for their bright orange tint. Never heard of achiote? Perhaps you know it as annatto, instead.

Although you may not be familiar with this hard seed in its whole form, you have doubtless come across its naturally orange-reddish shade in other uses – coloring cheeses, pastry dough, butter, and other prepared foods; medications; cloth; and even cosmetics.

Achiote seeds and powder
Achiote seeds and powder | Source

Availability of Achiote

The achiote bush (Bixa orellana) is native to North America and its seed pods turn brown and hairy when ripe. The seeds themselves are approximately 3mm in diameter and reddish-brown. When ground, the seeds make a deeply reddish powder, or can be crushed with other spices into a small amount of water to form a ready-made paste (or simply bought). This paste is also known as recado colorado. When warmed in oil, the seeds impart a warm orangey-red tone to the oil, which is then used to color and flavor food.

The photograph shows bright orange achiote powder and two types of achiote seeds -- young and old. The younger ones are brighter and will release their color and flavor more easily than older ones. Seek these ones when buying.

If you make your own paste, use a mortar and pestle; when grinding the seeds use a special grinder you have set aside; and when heating the seeds in oil, be sure to place the spoon on a glass plate. Achiote is highly pigmented and will stain whatever it touches, including your fingers.

Golden orange achiote oil
Golden orange achiote oil | Source
Arroz con gandules
Arroz con gandules | Source

Achiote in Foods

When used in food, annatto does require certain specifications, but the Food and Drug Administration has exempted it from certification:

“…annatto extract shall contain no more solvent residue than is permitted of the corresponding solvents in spice oleoresins under applicable food additive regulations in parts 170 through 189 of this chapter."

This certification of exemption makes achiote more valuable commercially.

Although their flavor profiles are not very similar, due to its color annatto is sometimes used as a much less expensive replacement to saffron, the king of spices.

One example of one of the many dishes that can be prepared with achiote is arroz con gandules.

Achiote in Cosmetics

The Aztecs and Mayans used annatto to color their skin and hair from this “lipstick tree”, and today we are no different. Hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Annatto is used to color different types of cosmetics including eye makeup, and does not require certification by the FDA in this form either. Two cosmetic brands that use annatto as a coloring are Aveda in their Control Paste Finishing Paste for hair; and DuWop in their Pure Venom Plumping Lip Stain.

Some companies simply name their blush tones “achiote,” for example the healthy, natural type cosmetics company tarte. They created Achiote Cheek Tint & Lip Luster Duo, unfortunately no longer available on the tarte site. I imagine rubbing oil directly on one’s cheeks is no longer appropriate. Or perhaps it’s simply considered too messy nowadays.

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    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Sounds great! Can't wait to hear about it.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 

      7 years ago from Peru, South America

      You're right, it may be a failed experiment. I 'll let you know how it goes!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Haha! Great idea. Although your lips may taste muskier than usual, the oil may slip off, and the straight orange may not be as flattering as, say, a color that was studied first. ;^)

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 

      7 years ago from Peru, South America

      They call it achiote in Peru and it's often used as a natural food coloring. I didn't know it was used for makeup! Maybe I should whip up some lip stain?!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Nell! I was excited to write this hub because I cook with it so often and was intrigued by the stuff.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi, really interesting, and I love the 'lipstick tree'! safe to eat and use as makeup, great stuff! thanks for the info, I never knew this before, thanks!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Finance!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hmm, good question. You may be cooking with older seeds, which won't impart much flavor or color to your dishes. The taste is slightly musky, a little earthy. The best I can describe it as is "warming."

    • profile image

      Gina 

      7 years ago

      Do you know anything about why people started using achiote? Besides being the really cheap cousin of saffron, is there anything else? It doesn't impart any flavor that I have noticed. . .

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Brainy Bunny, haha!

      I doubt they will get too stained, though... the food will be dry enough and there would have to be a carrier of the pigment (like oil or water) for any semi-permanent staining to take place. In lipstick it would be the moisturizing base; in hair products, the waxy or pomade base.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 

      7 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      I didn't know that annatto was used for makeup! Maybe I'll check to see if my lips get stained the next time I eat arroz con gandules.

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