Annatto is the brick-red spice that gives cheddar cheese and other foods its characteristic orange color. It is ground from the seeds of the Bixa orellana plant, also known as achiote.
Traditionally, the seeds of this tropical plant are used as both coloring and flavoring in many Latin American, Caribbean and Filipino dishes. In the Philippines, it is known as roucou or achuete; in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, it is called bourry; and in Mexico, it is most often seen simmered in oil to make achiote paste, commonly added to traditional tamales, guacamole, and other dishes. It is also a key ingredient in the popular Mexican seasoning recado rojo (look for it in Goya’s sazon), and it can be used to add color to rice, soups and stews.
In addition to its food use, annatto has long been valued as a natural dye and skin brightener. Its strong pigmentation is derived from carotenoid compounds, mainly bixin and norbixin. These compounds are soluble in fats and oils and can give the liquid an orange to red-orange hue. In addition, they have a pleasant floral scent and mildly peppery taste.
Aside from its ability to provide a wide array of colors, annatto has numerous health benefits due to its high concentration of rare vitamin E compounds called tocotrienols. These unique compounds have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and cardiovascular protective properties. Additionally, a number of studies suggest that the tocotrienols in annatto may help reduce inflammation and prevent cancer.