(Bixa orellana)


Annatto, Bixa Annatto, Bixa Annatto, Bixa


Family: Bixaceae
Kingdom: Plantae
Genus: Bixa
Order: Malvales
Species: B. orellana
Synonyms: Bixa acuminata, B. americana, B. odorata, B. platycarpa, B. purpurea, B. tinctoria, B. upatensis, B. urucurana, Orellana americana, O. orellana
Common names: achiote, achiotec, achiotl, achote, annatto, urucu, beninoki, bija, eroya, jafara, kasujmba-kelling, kham thai, onoto, orleanstrauch, orucu-axiote, rocou, roucou, ruku, roucouyer, unane, uruku, urucum, urucu-üva
Parts Used: Seeds, Leaves, Bark, Roots, Shoots, Sap of the fruit

Main Actions Other Actions Standard Dosage
  • reduces acid
  • reduces inflammation
  • Seed and Leaves
  • kills bacteria
  • stops coughing
  • Leaf Decoction: 1/2 cup 2-3
  • fights free radicals
  • dries secretions/oils
  • times daily
  • kills parasites
  • cleanses blood
  • Seed powder: 5-10 mg twice daily
  • kills germs
  • soothes membranes
  • Sap of fruits used to treat type 2 diabetes
  • increases urination
  • reduces phlegm
  • stimulates digestion
  • reduces fever
  • lowers blood pressure
  • raises blood sugar
  • mildly laxative
  • heals wounds
  • protects liver
  • fungal infections
  • suntroke
  • tonsilitis
  • burns
  • leprosy
  • pleurisy
  • apnoea
  • rectal discomfort
  • headaches
  • type 2 diabetes

    Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a shrub or small tree from the tropical region of the American continent. The name derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, achiotl. It is also known as Aploppas, and its original Tupi name urucu. It is cultivated there and in Southeast Asia, where it was introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century. It is best known as the source of the natural pigment annatto, produced from the fruit. The plant bears pink flowers and bright red spiny fruits which contain red seeds. The fruits dry and harden to brown capsules.

    The inedible fruit is harvested for its seeds, which contain annatto, also called bixin. It can be extracted by stirring the seeds in water. It is used to color food products, such as cheeses, fish, and salad oil. Sold as a paste or powder for culinary use, mainly as a color, it is known as "achiote," "annatto" or "pimentão doce." It is a main ingredient in the Mexican spice mixture recado rojo, or "achiote paste." The seeds are ground and used as a subtly flavored and colorful additive in Latin American, Jamaican and Filipino cuisine. Annatto is growing in popularity as a natural alternative to synthetic food coloring compounds. It is an important ingredient of cochinita pibil, the spicy pork dish made famous in the film Once Upon a Time in Mexico.


    Traditionally, the crushed seeds are soaked in water that is allowed to evaporate. A brightly colored paste is produced which is added to soups, cheeses, and other foods to give them a bright yellow or orange color. Annatto seed paste produced in South America is exported to North America and Europe, where it is used as a food coloring for margarine, cheese, microwave popcorn, and other yellow or orange foodstuffs. Many times, this natural food coloring replaces the very expensive saffron in recipes and dishes around the world. Annatto paste is also used as a natural dye for cloth and wool and is sometimes employed in the paint, varnish, lacquer, cosmetic, and soap industries.

    Throughout the rainforest, indigenous tribes have used annatto seeds as body paint and as a fabric dye. It has been traced back to the ancient Mayan Indians, who employed it as a principal coloring agent in foods, for body paints, and as a coloring for arts, crafts, and murals. Although mostly only the seed paste or seed oil is used commercially today, the rainforest tribes have used the entire plant as medicine for centuries. A tea made with the young shoots is used by the Piura tribe as an aphrodisiac and astringent, and to treat skin problems, fevers, dysentery, liver disease, and hepatitis. The plant has also been considered good for the digestive system. The Cojedes tribe uses an infusion of the flowers to stimulate the bowels and aid in elimination as well as to avoid phlegm in newborn babies. Traditional healers in Colombia have also used annatto as an antivenin for snakebites. The seeds are believed to be an expectorant, while the roots are thought to be a digestive aid and cough suppressant.

    Today in Brazilian herbal medicine, a leaf decoction of annatto is used to treat heartburn and stomach distress caused by spicy foods, and as a mild diuretic and mild laxative. It is also used for fevers and malaria, and, topically, to treat burns. Annatto is a common remedy in Peruvian herbal medicine today, and the dried leaves are called achiotec. Eight to ten dried leaves are boiled for 10 minutes in 1 liter of water for this popular Peruvian remedy. One cup is drunk warm or cold 3 times daily after meals to treat prostate disorders and internal inflammation, arterial hypertension, high cholesterol, cystitis, obesity, renal insufficiency, and to eliminate uric acid. This decoction is also recommended as a vaginal antiseptic and wound healer, as a wash for skin infections, and for liver and stomach disorders. Curanderos (herbal healers) in the Peruvian Amazon squeeze the juice from the fresh leaves and place it in the eye for inflammation and eye infections, and they use the juice of 12 fruits taken twice daily for 5 days to "cure" epilepsy.


    Analysis of annatto seeds indicates that they contain 40% to 45% cellulose, 3.5% to 5.5% sucrose, 0.3% to 0.9% essential oil, 3% fixed oil, 4.5% to 5.5% pigments, and 13% to 16% protein, as well as alpha- and beta-carotenoids and other constituents. Annatto oil is extracted from the seeds and is the main source of pigments named bixin and norbixin, which are classified as carotenoids. Bixin, extracted and used as a food colorant, has been shown to protect against ultraviolet rays and to have antioxidant and liver protective properties in clinical research.

    In addition to bixin and norbixin, annatto contains bixaghanene, bixein, bixol, crocetin, ellagic acid, ishwarane, isobixin, phenylalanine, salicylic acid, threonine, tomentosic acid, and tryptophan.


    Much has been done in the laboratory validating annatto's traditional uses and finding new ones. A water extract of the root has demonstrated hypotensive activity in rats, as Peruvian herbal systems have practiced. The same extract demonstrated smooth muscle-relaxant activity in guinea pigs and lowered gastric secretions in rats, which help to explain its use as a digestive aid and for stomach disorders. Annatto seed extracts have been documented to raise blood glucose levels in some species of animals and to lower it in others. Annatto leaves were reported in yet another study to possess aldose reductase inhibition actions, a process implicated in the advancement of diabetic neuropathy. A 2000 study confirmed the effectiveness of a leaf-and-bark extract at neutralizing hemorrhages in mice injected with snake venom, a practice used in Colombia for many years. Annatto demonstrated antigonorrheal activity in a 1995 study, and in other research, flower and leaf extracts demonstrated in vitro antibacterial activity against several bacteria, including E. coli and Staphylococcus. This supports its use in traditional medicine systems for gonorrhea and other types of infections.


    Although not widely available in the United States, standard decoctions of annatto leaves are taken by the half-cupful two or three times daily for prostate and urinary difficulties as well as for high cholesterol and hypertension. Ground annatto seed powder is also used in small dosages of 10-20 mg daily for high cholesterol and hypertension. Higher dosages can cause a marked increase in urination. It has been noted that some individuals are highly sensitive to annatto seed and this diuretic effect can be caused at much lower doses, even by just eating a bag of popcorn in which annatto was used as a coloring or flavoring ingredient.

    Annatto's history of use as a food coloring is well established worldwide, and current trends show that it is being used increasingly in body care products. Annatto oil is an emollient, and its high carotenoid content provides beneficial antioxidant properties. In body care products, annatto oil provides antioxidant benefits while adding a rich, sunny color to creams, lotions, and shampoos.

    Main Preparation Method: leaf infusion

    Main Actions (in order):
    antimicrobial, diuretic, digestive stimulant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol)

    Main Uses:

    1. as a topical antiseptic for ear, eye, and skin infections
    2. for digestive problems (heartburn, constipation, stomachache)
    3. for prostate and urinary infections
    4. for hypertension
    5. for high cholesterol levels
    Properties/Actions Documented by Research:
    aldose reductase inhibitor (linked to diabetic complications), antibacterial, antihemorrhagic (reduces bleeding), antivenin

    Other Properties/Actions Documented by Traditional Use:
    antacid, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol), anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, aperient (mild laxative), aphrodisiac, astringent, digestive stimulant, diuretic, febrifuge (reduces fever), hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), wound healer

    Cautions: It may potentiate medications used to treat hypertension.

    Main Preparation Method: seed maceration or capsules

    Main Actions (in order):
    antioxidant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), insect repellant, diuretic, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol)

    Main Uses:

    1. to tone, balance, and strengthen liver function and for hepatitis and liver inflammation/pain
    2. for high cholesterol
    3. for skin care and skin anti-aging (for its antioxidant and ultraviolet ray [UV]-protective effect)
    4. as a strong diuretic
    5. for high blood pressure
    Properties/Actions Documented by Research:
    antioxidant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), hyperglycemic; also used as a food-coloring agent

    Other Properties/Actions Documented by Traditional Use:
    expectorant, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol), hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), insect repellant, wound healer

    Cautions: It might raise blood sugar levels and may potentiate medications used to treat hypertension.

    Traditional Preparation: In South America, a standard leaf decoction is prepared. One-half cup amounts are taken two or three times daily with meals for various conditions. Ground annatto seed powder is also used in small dosages (of 5-20 mg daily).

    Contraindications:The seed extract was reported to elevate blood sugar levels in dogs, and it is therefore contraindicated for people with diabetes. A 1991 study documents an allergic reaction of one patient to bixin, the dye chemical in annatto seeds, stating it's ". . . a potential rare cause of anaphylaxis."

    Drug Interactions: None reported

    Argentina for diarrhea, fevers, heart support
    Brazil for burns, constipation, fevers, heartburn, hepatitis, malaria, stomachache, urinary insufficiency
    Columbia as an antivenin, aphrodisiac
    Cuba as an aphrodisiac
    Guatemala for gonorrhea
    Haiti for fever and as a douche and insect repellent
    Mexico for burns, constipation, digestion, dysentery, epilepsy, erysipelas, fever, gonorrhea, headache, inflammation, malaria, sore throat, tumors, urinary insufficiency, vaginitis, venereal disease, wounds, and as an aphrodisiac, astringent, and insect repellent
    Paraguay as an insecticide and insect repellent
    Peru for conjunctivitis, cystitis, dysentery, epilepsy, fevers, high cholesterol, digestion, hypertension, obesity, prostatitis, renal problems, urinary problems, urogenital infections, wounds, and as an antiseptic, aphrodisiac, astringent, and dye
    Trinidad for diabetes, dysentery, flu, jaundice, renal insufficiency, skin disease, venereal disease
    Elsewhere for blood cleansing, cancer, diabetes, dysentery, fever, kidney problems, parasites, skin disorders, to stop bleeding, and as an aphrodisiac, astringent, dye, and cosmetic