8 Incredible Benefits of the Annato Seed

What is it?

The achiote tree is a tropical shrub or small tree that grows in Central and South America. The flowers of this tropical tree are white or bright pink, but the fruit is actually the most desirable part of the plant, made up of spiky brown and red pods that grow in clusters.

Historical Uses:

While the tree is called Achiote it is the food coloring and condiment that is extracted from the fruit which is called annato.  Throughout history it has had a wide variety of uses such as body paint and dye for textiles or food. The ancient Maya and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus used it in sacred rituals. More importantly, it has numerous medicinal and herbal benefits that are only now being full understood.

Culinary Uses:

As for culinary applications of the annato seed, its scent is described as "slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg" and the flavor as "slightly nutty, sweet and peppery".  Most commonly it is used in dishes from the Yucatan Penninsula such as spicy pulled pork, or the classic Puerto Rican  arroz con pollo. The Filipinos make a tamale that utilizes rice instead of corn, and the Vietnamese use the seed in various meat braises and soups.

Health Benefits:

It has only been recently that the chemical composition of annatto has been fully understood.  Below are several reasons to include annato in your diet:

  • Eye Health:The reddish hue of annatto seeds is due to the carotenoids present in the seeds. This high carotenoid content functions as an antioxidant in your ocular system and aids in the prevention of the development of cataracts, while also staving off macular degeneration, keeping your vision strong for years.

  • Antioxidants: Other organic compounds that make up annatto, like tocotrienols, are one of the reasons that annatto is so sought after for treatment of the skin. Annatto paste made from the seeds can be topically applied to reduce the signs of wrinkles, blemishes, and other imperfections, while also tightening up the skin and making it look younger.

  • Topical Applications: Annatto seed paste can be applied to burns or wounds on the skin to speed the healing process and reduce the appearance of scarring. Also, the natural antimicrobial nature of annatto may help prevent infections.

  • Healthy Digestion: The high level of fiber found in annatto seeds is beneficial to human digestion by promoting the smooth passage of food through the bowels and the efficient uptake of nutrients. Fiber also helps to lower cholesterol and manage diabetes, as it can help optimize the insulin and glucose levels in the blood.

  • Strengthen Bones: The significant level of calcium found in annatto makes it important if you want to supplement your bone mineral density.  Osteoporosis can affect anyone, so preventing it with essential minerals like calcium is crucial.

  • Prevent Birth Defects: Annato contains an impressive amount of folate (folic acid) and while there are many benefits of this vitamin, preventing neural tube defects in unborn children may just be the most important. 

  • Stomach Issues: To calm an upset stomach, annatto may be consumed.  It functions like an antacid treating heartburn and discomfort, which may be associated with multiple ailments from viral infections to enjoying an overabundance of spicy food.

  • Anti-Cancer Possibilities: Norbixin is one of the pigments found in annatto seeds and a known powerful antioxidant. Recently it was shown that norbixin has anti-mutagenic effects on healthy cells that have been exposed to cancerous cells and free radicals.
One final note concerning annato, although there is no known toxicity, there are some who experience severe allergic reactions from annatto, even anaphylaxis.  If you are undergoing surgery in the near future, avoid annatto, as it can affect blood sugar levels. Pregnant women should only take limited amounts under supervision from a medical professional who is familiar with herbal remedies.  As with any herbal supplementation always consult your doctor for possible drug interactions.