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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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