The seeds of the shrubby Achiote or Annatto tree (Bixa orellana) are the source of annatto dye, which contains the soluble reddish-orange carotenoid pigment known as bixin, one of the most widely used natural colorants in the world (second only to saffron in economic importance). Annatto has major uses in the food and cosmetics industries and annual world consumption exceeds 10,000 metric tons. There are a range of varieties of Achiote that differ in traits including not only the shape and color of flowers and seed capsules, but also pigment concentration. The market price of annatto is proportional to its bixin concentration. (Nisha et al. 2012; Akshatha et al. 2011)
Annatto, which is the only member of the plant family Bixaceae, is cultivated widely in the tropics. It was widely distributed and cultivated in the New World tropics long before being spread around the globe (Leal and Michelangeli de Clavijo 2010). The leaves of the plant are ovate with a round, heart-shaped base and a pointed tip. The petioles (leaf stalks) are swollen at both the base and apex. The flowers may be white, pink, or purple. The fruit capsules are bi-valved (i.e. with two halves that fit together) and covered with soft bristles. Upon ripening, they split open to reveal numerous reddish-orange seeds. Annatto is produced mainly in the aril portion of the seed. Bixin is an apocarotenoid and constitutes up to 82% (w/w) of the total pigment present. Akshatha et al. (2011) found that plants bearing pink flowers and red ovate fruit-bearing varieties were superior in their growth, number of fruits per bunch, seed number per fruit, and annatto pigment content. (Akshatha et al. 2011 and references therein)
Aspects of the cultivation of Achiote and the downstream processing of annatto pigment have been reviewed by Aparnathi et al. (1990) and Satyanarayana et al. (2003), respectively.
There has been much interest in analyzing the biochemical pathways used by Achiote to synthesize bixin, as well as in understanding the genetic and biochemical bases for differences among varieties. These investigations may lead to the development of more efficient and more predictable methods of bixin production through genetic engineering and/or tissue or cell culture (e.g., Bouvier et al. 2003; Rodríguez-Ávila et al. 2011; Mahendranath et al. 2011)
Although not completely up-to-date, much information on international trade in annatto is available from the 1995 FAO publication Natural Colourants and Dyestuffs.
- Akshatha, V., P. Giridhar, and G.A. Ravishankar. 2011. Morphological diversity in Bixa orellana L. and variations in annatto pigment yield. Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology 86(4): 319–324.
- Aparnathi, K., R. Lata, and R. Sharma. 1990. Annatto (Bixa orellana L.): its cultivation, preparation and usage. International Journal of Tropical Agriculture 8: 80-88.
- Bouvier., F.O. Dogbo, and B. Camara. 2003. Biosynthesis of the food and cosmetic plant pigment bixin (annatto). Science 300(5628): 2089-2091.
- FAO. 1995. Natural Colourants and Dyestuffs. Non-Wood Forests Products. Volume 4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 122 pp. http://www.fao.org/docrep/V8879E/V8879E00.htm
- Leal, F. and C.M. MichelangeliI de Clavijo. 2010. Annatto: a natural dye from the tropics. Chronica Horticulturae 50: 34-36.
- Mahendranath, G., A. Venugopalan, R. Parimalan, P. Giridhar, and G.A. Ravishankar. 2011. Annatto pigment production in root cultures of Achiote (Bixa orellana L.). Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture 106: 517–522.
- Nisha, J., E.A. Siril, and G.M. Nair. 2012. Reproductive characterization and preliminary studies on controlled breeding of Annatto (Bixa orellana L.). Systematics and Evolution 298(1): 239-250.
- Rodríguez-Ávila, N.L., J.A. Narváez-Zapata, M. Aguilar-Espinosa, and R. Rivera-Madrid. 2011. Regulation of Pigment-Related Genes During Flower and Fruit Development of Bixa orellana. Plant Molecular Biology Reporter 29: 43–50.
- Satyanarayana, A., P.G.P. Rao, and D.G. Rao. 2003. Chemistry, processing and toxicology of annatto (Bixa orellana L.). Journal of Food Science and Technology 40(2): 131-141.
Derivation of specific name
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Global Range: Common cultivar in the neotropics.
In terminal panicles, pink turning white. Flowering throughout the year.
A capsule, reddish brown, two-valved spiny. Seeds many, red. Fruiting throughout the year.
A small evergreen tree."
Habitat & Distribution
Life History and Behavior
Persistence: PERENNIAL, Long-lived
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Bixa orellana
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Bixa urucurana
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 9
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: GNR - Not Yet Ranked
Reasons: A cultivated shrub which does not exist in the wild state. Several related species occur in the Amazon basin. It has been spread by cultivation and is now found from Mexico to Argentina and Brazil, and in the West Indies from Cuba and Jamaica to Barbados and Trinidad. It has been widely planted and naturalized in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Uncommon in cultivation in southern Florida. In Bolivia it is found in abandoned plantations in warn zones (180-1800 m).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Uses: FOOD, Spice/herb/condiment, Other medicine/drug, Tannin/dye, ESTHETIC, Cosmetics/personal hygiene
Production Methods: Cultivated, Wild-harvested
Comments: From a ripe plant 5 kg of red seed pulp may be harvested. Bixa is widely used by indians as spice, as repellent against insects, and mainly as body paint. The red seed pulp was an important trade object for exportation to Europe in the 18th and 19th century. Recently the demand for bixa products is increasing as the need for non-toxic and non-carcinogenic substances for colouring cheese, butter, lipsticks and ointments is growing. A pulp extracted from the pod is dried and pressed into cakes or rolls for the market.
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Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a shrub or small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. The name derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, āchiotl /aːˈt͡ʃiot͡ɬ/. It is also known as Aploppas, and its original Tupi name uruku. 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.
It is of particular commercial value in the United States because the Food and Drug Administration considers annatto colorants made from it to be "exempt of certification". It is used as a colorant and condiment for traditional dishes such as cochinita pibil, rice, chicken in achiote and caldo de olla. It is also used to add color to butter, cheese, popcorn, drinks, and breads. The main commercial producers are countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and also India and Sri Lanka, where it was introduced by the Spainish in the 17th century. Production statistics are not usually available, and would not provide a reliable guide to international trade since many of the producing countries utilize significant quantities domestically (e.g. Brazil is a large producer and consumer, needing additional imports). Annual world production of dried annatto seed at the beginning of the 21st century was estimated at about 10,000 tons of which 7,000 tons enters international trade. Peru is the largest exporter of annatto seed, annually about 4,000 tons; Brazil the largest producer with about 5,000 tons. Kenya exports annually about 1,500 tons annatto seed and extracts and is the second largest exporter, after Peru. Côte d’Ivoire and Angola are also exporters.
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 "pimentão 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, Chamorro 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.
In several European countries (e.g. Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway) the pigment, extracted by solvent or boiling the seeds in oil, have been and often still is used as color in margarines and several other foods. The pigment has E-number E160b. The seeds are collected from wild-growing bushes or from plantations, in Latin America, Africa (e.g. Kenya) and Asia. However, since there is no strong organization promoting the use of annatto, the color beta carotene, which is more expensive, has pushed the natural pigment out of many applications.
Achiote paste, favored in Yucatán, Oaxacan, and Belizean cuisine, is made from the slightly bitter, earthy flavored, red annatto seeds, mixed with other spices and ground into a paste. Achiote is a distinctly colored and flavored mainstay of Mexican and Belizean kitchens.
The paste is dissolved in either lemon juice, water, oil or vinegar to create a marinade, and marinated or rubbed directly upon meat. The meat is then grilled, baked, barbecued or broiled. Sometimes it is added to corn dough to create a zesty flavor and color in empanadas and red tamales.
Sazón means "seasoning" in Spanish. In Puerto Rico, it also refers to a seasoned salt that is commonly used while cooking meats and fish. It is made by crushing annatto seeds with cumin and coriander seeds. Garlic powder, dry cilantro and salt are then added.
The achiote 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 Tsáchila of Ecuador is the origin of their usual Spanish name, the Colorados.
In developing countries, particularly in Colombia, it is used in folk medicine and natural remedies for the treatment of common infections. Achiote is among those herbs used in Colombian folk medicine to treat infections of microbial origin. Adding to the known health benefits exerted by carotenoids, a bioactive sesquiterpene from achiote exhibited moderate anti-fungal activity. Extracts of the leaves of achiote possess antimicrobial activity against Gram positive microorganisms, with maximum activity against Bacillus pumilus. Achiote leaves have been employed to treat malaria and Leishmaniasis. In traditional medicine of India different parts of the plant are used as diuretic, laxative, antibilious, antiemetic and astringent agents, as blood purifier, in jaundice, in dysentery, and externally as scar-preventive.
- B. orellana and annatto
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With fruits in Hyderabad, India.
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