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Annatto

Bixa orellana

Scientific Name:

Organic / Conventional
 

From exotic foods to ethnomedical uses

Annato (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," "bijol," or "pimento doce." It is a main ingredient in the Yucatecan 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. While it has a distinct flavor of its own, it can be used to color and flavor rice instead of the much more expensive saffron. It is an important ingredient of cochinita pibil, the spicy pork dish popular in Mexico. It is also a key ingredient in the drink Tascalate from Chiapas, Mexico.

Ethnomedical uses

The Annato has long been used by American Indians to make body paint, especially for the lips, which is the origin of the plant's nickname, lipstick tree. The use of the dye in the hair by men of the Tsachila of Ecuador is the origin of their usual Spanish name, the Colorados.

Parts of the plant can be used to make medicinal remedies for such conditions as sunstroke, tonsilitis, burns, leprosy, pleurisy, apnoea, rectal discomfort, and headaches.

The sap from fruits is also used to treat type 2 diabetes, and fungal infections.