Herbs: Annatto or Achiote; History and Nutritional Value

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Bixa orellana or Annatto is plant or small tree originally only found near the Amazon basin but has become naturalized in many of the world’s subtropical regions. This plant produces annatto seeds which are primarily used as a natural food coloring.

Better known as achiote or the lipstick plant, Bixa orellana, has been cultivated for centuries for its use as a textile dye, and subsequently as a natural food coloring. This plant from the Bixaceae botanical family, native to South America, produces red capsules which contain numerous tiny red or yellow seeds, the product of which is known as annatto. Nutritionally, annatto contains carotenoids and has antioxidant properties.

As legend has it, when the Spanish first explored the Amazon basin they came across Yagua Indians or Nihamwo, as they call themselves. The Yaguas, whose territory stretched from Colombia to Brazil, wore palm fiber skirts dyed red with annatto and used blow guns as weapons. The Spanish were so startled at the site of what they thought were women, that they named the largest river after a Greek mythological story about a nation of woman warriors known as the Amazons. Sadly, the Yagua Indians of today are more than likely to purchase dyed fabrics, probably with red number 40, than make dye from annatto.

Aside from using annatto to dye textiles, it was common practice amongst the indigenous people of South America to use annatto as body paint. The Colorado Indians of Ecuador (Tsachila tribe), were so named by the Spanish (‘colorado’ meaning colored) because they died their hair with a paste colored with annatto that was allowed to dry. The reasons why indigenous people used body paint are thought to be numerous. It could have been that the wearer of the dye may have held a rank in his or her society; for religious significance; for ceremonial purposes or purely decorative. Plant dyes were also used as insect repellent or for a combination of reasons.

To the indigenous people of the Amazon the annatto plant is not just a convenient source of red or yellow dye, but a utilitarian plant. Resin from the plant’s bark is used to make gum, and fibers are obtained to make string. And the gum obtained from the leaves is used to prepare a substance to treat conjunctivitis. The leaves of the annatto plant are also used to treat dermatitis and hepatitis.

Early European explores saw the commercial significance of annatto and so exports began in the 1700s. By the eighteenth century both red and yellow annatto plants were being cultivated in India and Southeast Asia for the textile industry, although it was soon found that the annatto dye faded too quickly. Subsequent testing discovered that the dye was easily absorbed by fats and oils and so was less suitable as a fabric dye, but could be used as a food coloring.

Annatto became one of Latin Americas most important cash crops as it was widely used as the food coloring for cheese, butter, margarine, egg products and seasonings, in the USA and Europe. In Latin America the practice of using annatto as food coloring continued but the export market dropped off when cheaper to produce synthetic food colorings became available. Thankfully that process is now in reveres because of public concern over the safety of synthetic colorings. Natural food colorings and fabric dyes such as annatto and cochineal are back in vogue.

Bixa orellana is either a bush or it can be a small tree, depending upon the species. Prior to the ripening of its fruit, it bears attractive white or pink, five petal, flowers with yellow and pink stamens. Its leaves are medium sized and are slightly triangular in shape. When annatto is not in fruit it looks somewhat inconspicuous and would be easily overlooked. However, this shrub produces large clusters, usually ten or more, of striking oval shaped fruits encapsulated by red or yellow, delicate spiny pods. The pods are inedible but contain a number of tiny red seeds, which, ground into a paste, are the source of the valuable red food coloring.

By articotropical Image credit.

Annatto or Achiote and its Nutrition: Annatto was not only valued for its medicinal properties by indigenous communities in tropical Latin America, but by people in the West Indies, who amongst other things, used it as a treatment for diabetes. A 2008 study by the University of the West Indies in Mona, Kingston sought to find possible reasons why annatto had blood glucose lowering properties. The results determined that consuming annatto could lower blood glucose by activating peripheral utilization of glucose.

Because annatto is a natural food coloring it has so far been unregulated and as a consequence little research has been done as to the chemical composition of annatto. What we do know is that the red-orange pigment in annatto is caused by three types of carotenoids, beta carotene, bixon and norbixin. Norbixin is an unusual, water soluable, carotenoid that is mainly found in the outer casing of the seed. Bixin and beta carotene constitute the seeds remainder. other phytochemicals found in annatto include saponins, tannins and sallicylic acid.

Vitamin A or carotenoids such as lutein and lycopene are known to be potent antioxidants, and free radical scavengers, as they help protect DNA against oxidative damage. However, research into the antioxidant properties of bixin and norbixin showed mixed results. Whilst bixin and norbixin were generally shown to protect against oxidative damage, they may also increase oxidative damage or be pro-oxidant under certain circumstances.

The seeds, leaves and roots of annatto also contain minerals which include calcium, phosphorus and iron. The annatto plant is also a source of B complex vitamins and vitamin C.   

Yaguas Indians use annatto to dye textiles and as body paint. Image published at threeweb.typepad.com. Primary image by kaiyanwong223, published as flickr.com. 


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