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Annatto seeds Nutrition facts

Annatto is a food coloring that is used as a condiment spice in the food industry. It is made from the colorful outer coating (pericarp) of achiote seeds.

The achiote plant is originally from Central and tropical South America. The name "achiote" comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl.

Its scientific name is Bixa orellana L, and it belongs to the Bixceae family. Some other names for annatto include "lipstick seeds" and "roucou."

annatto seeds
Annatto seeds. Note for pyramidal-shape, brick red seeds.

Bixa is a tropical evergreen shrub growing about 3-6 meters tall. It flourishes well under warm, humid climates. Each season, it produces numerous spherical to ovoid, fleshy, green, greenish-brown, or red (in mature) fruit pods covered with bristles on their surface.

Once matured and dry, the fruit pod splits open to reveal 20-50 seeds, which actually are a commercially important source of annatto pigments.

Annatto seeds feature conical, or pyramidal shapes. The measurement is 4.5 mm long. The seeds are bright orange-red with fleshy coats (arils), which impart a slightly peppery flavor with a hint of nutmeg aroma. The pigment color varies from yellow to red, depending upon the soil type and concentration of carotenoids.

7 unique Health benefits of Annatto seeds

  1. Although not have much calorific value, annatto seeds hold their role as a natural, chemical-free food colorant at the same time not seem to change the food value. Its use as a safe food additive is also acknowledged by the US-FDA and WHO.

  2. The color pigments in annatto seeds are apo-carotenoids namely bixin and nor-bixin, which extracted from the outer coating of the seeds. Bixin is a fat-soluble carotenoid that contributes to a majority of (about 70-80%) pigment in the seeds.

  3. Besides bixin and norbixin, the other chemical substances that have been isolated from the seeds of annatto are isobixin, β-carotene, cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, orellin, bixein, bixol, crocetin, ishwarane, ellagic acid, salicylic acid, threonine, tomentosic acid, tryptophan, and phenylalanine.

  4. Annatto seeds are also rich source of organic volatile compounds such as bornyl acetate, copaene, cubebene, β-pinene, 4-methylpyridine, elemene, cyclosativene, geranyl phenylacetate, 1-heptanetiol, 3-methylpyridine, β-humulene, isoledene, d-selinene, etc.

  5. These biological compounds in them have potential use as antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, insect repellent, anti-malarial agents in the traditional medicines in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru.

  6. The indigenous Amazonian people use the annatto as a condiment as well as to treat sunburn, wounds, and bruises.

  7. Several in-vitro studies suggest that the extracts of Bixa orellana showed biological activities such as antioxidant, anti-allergic, and anti-tumor for carcinoma of the lung.

Facts qoute

Annatto seeds contain health-benefiting apo-carotenoids such as bixin and nor-bixin compounds. Phenolic and flavonoid antioxidants in annatto help preserve the food and its nutritional value.

Medicinally, annatto's antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, insect repellent, and anti-malarial properties have been exploited by indigenous Amazonian people in Brazil, and natural therapists in Mexico and Peru.

See the table below for in depth analysis of nutrients: Annatto chemical composition.

(Source: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health)
Phytonutrients Nutrient Value % of DV
Carotenoids (mg bixin/g) 40.33 ± 0.32 --
Carotenoids (mg nor-bixin/g) 31.61 ± 3.88 --
Total Phenolic Compounds (mg GAE/g)A) 62.08 ± 2.21 --
Carotenoids (mg nor-bixin/g) 31.61 ± 3.88 --
Total Phenolic Compounds (mg GAE/g)A) 62.08 ± 2.21 --
Ascorbic acid content (mg AA/g)C) 13.75 ± 4.0 --
Total antioxidant capacity (mg AAE/g)D) 17.42 ± 0.45 --

Selection and storage

Dried annatto seeds in packs and bins of various brands available in the US stores year-round. Choose brick red seeds from an authentic company, which has a nutrition chart and expiry date label. One may also buy ready-to-use ground annatto powder, paste, or oil (annatto cheese colorant).

Once at home, annatto powder can be stored in an air-seal container and placed in a cool dark place away from sunlight and humidity. Store annatto water and oil in a cool dark place for immediate use or in the refrigerator for extended usage.


The seeds are washed and dried from the pulp separately from the pulp for culinary use. In England, it is used to color dairy produce such as Red Leicester and Cheshire cheeses.

Culinary uses

ackee and saltfish
Saltfish and Ackee
Photo courtesy: Arnold Gatilao (

Annatto imparts a wonderful color to oil when fried for a few minutes. The seeds are infused in hot water until the desired intensity of the color is achieved. This colorant then added to various dishes as a substitute for saffron.

Annatto has several industrial applications. It is used to color cheeses (ex. Colby and cheddar), sauces, butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sausage, soup, juice, ice-cream, and confectionaries.

The famous Jamaican national dish of saltfish (cod) and ackee is served in a vibrant sauce colored with annatto.

The Spanish introduced this spice to Filipinos, who use it extensively in their cuisine.

Safety profile

Consumption of dishes prepared using an annatto colorant is safe, and allergic reactions are rare to occur.

(Medical disclaimer).

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Further references and reading:

  1. Traditional Uses, Chemical Constituents, and Biological Activities of Bixa orellana L.: A Review (opens in new window).

  2. Effects of Annatto (Bixa orellana L.) Seeds Powder on Physicochemical Properties, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Pork Patties during Refrigerated Storage.

  3. Gernot-Katzer's spice pages. (Opens in new window).

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