What Is Annatto?

Where does annatto come from, how is it made, and what is it used in?

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Annatto is the seed or extract from the achiote tree, which is indigenous to Latin and South America. Annatto is used heavily in Central and South America as a dye, medicine, and as an ingredient in many foods.

Annatto is a naturally intense dye which can range in color from bright yellow to deep orange. Many commercially made food products utilize annatto for its potent color.

How is Annatto Made?

The fruit of the achiote tree is shaped like a heart and covered with thick, spiky hairs.

As the fruit matures, the pod opens to reveal its red seeds. The seeds and pulp have been used for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes. The seeds can be ground into a powder, turned into a paste, or infused into oil. Commercially, the seeds and flesh are processed to extract the potent dye.

Common Uses for Annatto

Color – Annatto is responsible for yellow butter, margarine, and cheese, all of which would be a pale creamy color without the benefit of annatto. Cheddar cheese acquired its classic orange color from annatto in the 1800’s when it was thought that high-quality cheeses were yellow due to higher quality green grass fed to cattle.

Annatto is used as a colorant in many other commercial products such as processed meats, smoked fish, beverages, and a variety of packaged food.

Annatto is also known as the “poor man’s saffron” because it can be used to achieve a similar bright yellow color to saffron without the high price.

Many dishes in Central and South America, such as Arroz con Pollo, use annatto for the distinct yellow color. Annatto is also used to color soups, stews, and spice rubs.

Flavor – Annatto’s flavor can be described as earthy, musky, and slightly peppery. Annatto seeds are usually steeped in oil or ground to a powder prior to adding to recipes, rather than adding the seeds whole.

Annatto is a key flavor component in many Latin and South American dishes.

Where to Find Annatto

Because annatto is not a common ingredient in American cuisine, it may be difficult to locate in supermarkets. Spice vendors or ethnic markets, especially those specializing in Latin, Mexican, or Caribbean ingredients, are likely sources. Annatto can be purchased as whole seeds, powder, or flavored oils.

Is Annatto All Natural?

Annatto is a natural colorant and therefore can be included as an ingredient in foods labeled “all natural”. Despite being all natural, annatto can not be labeled as “organic” unless the plants from which it is derived are grown under certified organic conditions. Because annatto is plant derived, it is an acceptable ingredient for vegetarians.

As with all ingredients, natural or synthetic, it is possible for some people to develop allergies or adverse reactions to this ingredient. Although a few cases have been reported, widespread allergies or adverse reactions to annatto have not been noted.