Bixa orellana

Herbs gallery - Achiote

Common names

  • Achiote
  • Annatto
  • Lipstick Tree

Achiote (botanical name Bixa orellana) is basically a shrub or an undersized tree that has its origin in both Americas having tropical climatic conditions. This herb gets its name from the term āchiotl, a Mahout (earlier known as Aztec) word that denotes a shrub.

Achiote is also called by many other names, such as Aploppas and its original name in Tupi (a native inhabitant of Brazil) - uruku.

Apart from being cultivated in these regions, achiote is also grown in various areas of Southeast Asia. In fact, the Spanish introduced this shrub in Southeast Asia way back in the 17th century.

This herb is well-know for producing a natural pigment called annatto, which is found in its fruit. While the flowers of achiote have a pink hue, the fruits are bright red and spiny enclosing red seeds. The fruits of achiote desiccate to turn into solid, brown-hued capsules.

In the United States, the fruits of achiote have a special commercial value, as the annatto colorants prepared from it have been exempted from certification by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The pigment obtained from achiote fruits is used both in the form of a colorant as well as for seasoning local traditional food preparations like rice, cochinita pibil, caldo de olla, and chicken in achiote.

In addition, annatto colorings are used to color cheese, butter, breads, drinks and popcorn. Countries where most of achiote of the world is cultivated include Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, Mexico, India, Peru, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Parts used

Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots.


The native tribes inhabiting the rainforests of both Americas have been using the annatto seed extract to paint their body as well as to dye fabric. In fact, available records reveal that the use of annatto seeds dates back to the Mayan Indians, who mainly used them in the form of a food coloring agent, paint their body and also to color their murals, crafts and arts.

However, these days the commercial use involves using the oil extracted from annatto seeds or a paste made from them. On the other hand, indigenous tribes inhabiting the rainforests have been practically using all the parts of achiote for therapeutic purposes for several centuries.

Members of the Piura tribe prepare an infusion or tea using the tender shoots of achiote and drink it in the form of an astringent and aphrodisiac. In addition, they also use the tea to cure fevers, skin disorders, dysentery and hepatitis. It is believed that this herb is also beneficial for people suffering from digestive problems.

People of the Cojedes tribe use the flowers of achiote to prepare an infusion and drink it to encourage bowels movement and facilitate its elimination. They also use the infusion to protect newborns from developing phlegm. In Colombia, traditional healers have been using annatto in the form of remedy for snakebites.

In addition, it is believed that the seeds of achiote possess expectorant properties. On the other hand, the roots of the herb are believed to aid in the digestive process as well as work to suppress cough.

In contemporary Brazilian herbal medicine, practitioners prepare a decoction with the leaves of the herb and use it to cure stomach disorders and heartburn caused by consuming spicy foods. This decoction is also used in the form of a mild laxative and mild diuretic. In addition, they also employ the decoction internally to treat fever and malaria, while it is applied externally to heal burn injuries.

In Peru, currently achiote is a very familiar and widely used remedy and the people in that country call the leaves achiotec. People there boil about eight to ten leaves in 1 litre water for about 10 minutes to prepare the decoction, which is a very popular herbal medication in Peru.

They drink one cup of this decoction either warm or cold thrice every day following meals to cure prostate problems as well as high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, internal inflammation, renal insufficiency, cystitis and also to eradicate uric acid. Herbal medicine practitioners also prescribe this decoction to women for use in the form of a vaginal antiseptic and heal wounds.

It is also recommended for treating liver problems and stomach disorders. This decoction is also used in the form of a skin wash to treat infections. Herbal healers in the Peruvian Amazon called Curanderos compress fresh annatto leaves to draw their juice and put it in the eyes to cure eye infections and eye inflammation. Curanderos also extract the juice of 12 achiote fruits twice every day for five consecutive days and use it to treat epilepsy.

Native Indians in America have been using the achiote since long to prepare body paints, especially to color their lips. This use of the achiote has also given it its other common name - the lipstick tree. This tree got its original Spanish name "Colorados" from the fact that men belonging to the Tsáchila tribe in Ecuador have been using the dye obtained from achiote to color their hair for long.

In the folk as well as natural medicines of most developing nations in the region, especially in Colombia, achiote is used for treating many common infections. In fact, Colombian folk remedy uses achiote for treating infections caused by microbes.

In addition to the already recognized health benefits of carotenoids, achiote encloses a bioactive sesquiterpene that has shown to possess reasonable anti-fungal activities. Achiote leaf extracts also have antimicrobial activity, especially against Gram positive microbes, and they are most effective against Bacillus pumilus.

For long, natives inhabiting the Amazon rainforests have been using achiote leaves (achiotec) for treating Leishmaniasis (an infection caused by a protozoan belonging to the genus Leishmania) and malaria. Similarly, in Indian traditional medicine, various parts of achiote are used in the form of antiemetic, antibilious, astringent, laxative and diuretic agents. The herb is also used for treating dysentery, jaundice and in the form of a blood purifier. Externally, it is used to prevent formation of scars.

Usually, the achiote seeds are crushed and subsequently soaked in water, which is let to evaporate. The residue is a bright colored paste that is added to cheese, soups as well as other foods to impart a vivid orange or yellow color to those foods.

Many countries in South America produce annatto seed paste and it is exported to North America as well as Europe, where people use the paste in the form of a coloring for cheese, margarine, and microwave popcorn, in addition to other foods having an orange or yellow color.

On several occasions, annatto seed paste is used as a substitute for saffron, which is an extremely expensive spice, in dishes and recipes throughout the world. In addition, annatto seed paste is employed for dying cloth as well as wool. Occasionally, it is also used in paints, lacquer and varnish. It has a demand in the cosmetic and soap industries too.

Standard decoctions prepared with annatto leaves are not very easy to find in the United States. The standard dosage of this decoction is taking half-a-cup (125 ml) of it twice or thrice every day for treating prostate complaints and urinary problems. This decoction is taken in the same dosage for treating hypertension and high cholesterol.

Occasionally, people also use pulverize achiote seeds into a powder and take it in little dosages of anything between 10 mg and 20 mg every day for treating hypertension and high cholesterol. Taking the decoction in excessive amounts may result in increased urination.

It has been found that a number of people are extremely sensitive to annatto seeds and they may cause a diuretic effect even when used in small doses. One may experience frequent as well as augmented urination every time when he/ she eats a bag of popcorn in which annatto has been used in the form of a flavoring or coloring agent.

Achiote has a long history of being used in the form of a food coloring agent. Today its use for this purpose is well established across the world. Latest trends demonstrate that the use of annatto as a coloring agent is increasing, especially in body care products.

Apart from being an excellent emollient, annatto oil contains elevated amounts of carotenoids which have useful antioxidant activities. When used in body care products, annatto oil offers antioxidant benefits, in addition to contributing a vibrant, sunny hue to lotions, creams and shampoos.

Culinary uses

Achiote paste is widely used in Belizean, Oaxacan and Yucatan cuisines and is very popular among the local inhabitants. It is prepared by blending somewhat astringent, earthy flavoured reddish annatto seeds with other spices and pounded to form a paste. In Belizean and Mexican kitchens, achiote is a distinctly flavoured and colored mainstay.

The achiote paste is always handy in the kitchen and before adding to any food it is dissolved in water, lemon juice, vinegar or oil to make a marinade, which is rubbed or marinated on the meat directly. Subsequently, the meat is baked, grilled, broiled or barbecued. Occasionally, the paste is also mixed with corn dough to give it a spicy flavour as well as a bright color, as in red tamales and empanadas.

In Spanish, the word "sazón" denotes seasoning, while in Puerto Rico, this term denotes a seasoned salt which is widely used when cooking fish and meat. The seasoned salt is prepared by pounding annatto seeds together with coriander and cumin seeds. Subsequently, dry cilantro, garlic powder and salt are added to the mix.


Chemical analysis of achiote fruit seeds has shown that they enclose cellulose, proteins, pigments, essential oils, sucrose, and fixed oils in addition to alpha-carotenoids and beta-carotenoids plus other elements. The achiote seeds yield annatto oil and this is the major resource of a number of pigments called norbixin and bixin, which have been classified as carotenoids.

Bixin is extracted from the seeds and used in the form of a food colorant. During chemical researches, it has been found that this carotenoid is effective in protecting us from the ultraviolet (UV) rays and, at the same time, possesses antioxidant properties. Bixin also helps to protect the liver from damage.

In addition to bixin and norbixin, annatto contains:

Side effects and cautions

An extract obtained from achiote seeds has been found to raise the levels of blood sugar in dogs. Although no such tests have been undertaken on humans thus far, it is still advised that people suffering from diabetes should not use them.


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