Bixa / Annatto


Bixa orellana

Family: Bixaceae

Annatto is a small evergreen tree or shrub that is native to the West Indies and to the tropical forests of the Americas. It grows to 8-10 feet and has huge leaves and pink or white flowers.1 The heart-shaped fruit of the tree is a vivid red capsule full of red seeds. The seeds, leaves, fruit, and roots of the plant are all utilized. Although annatto is the preferred name, the herb is also commonly known as bixa, achiote, bija, bijoul, and roucou.

History and Cultural Significance

Annatto has been used in various cultures for centuries. The seeds contain yellow and orange carotenoids that make it a popular dye commodity.2 Ancient Mayans, Aztecs, Incas, and native Amazonians used annatto as a red or orange body dye.2 The orange-red dye is known as bixin and is made by scraping off the outer covering of the seed and forming a paste.3 It said that this practice may protect the skin from the sun.3 The dye was eventually imported to Europe in the 16th century, which led to the commercial cultivation of annatto in India in 1787.2 After learning about annatto in the Americas, Spaniards introduced the plant to the Philippines where it is used in cooking.4

In the Caribbean, an infusion of the leaves and root was taken internally to assist with dysentery, epilepsy, and fever, and also as an aphrodisiac.1 The seed pulp was used externally to soothe burns.1

The Caribbean and Latin American cultures use annatto as a flavoring and a mild spice.4 Jamaicans use the herb in the spicy sauce of their traditional dish, akee and salt cod.4 The food industry employs the yellow and orange dye from the seeds as a color additive in cheese, margarine, soups, rice, and chocolate.5 Annatto seeds are also being used in the cosmetic industry in products such as hair dyes.5

Modern Research

Currently there are no clinical studies available on the internal or external uses of annatto.

Future Outlook

The current world production of annatto is estimated to be 10,000 tons annually.6 The major exporters of annatto include Peru and Kenya, while the major importers include the US, Western Europe, and Japan. Annatto sales grew during the 1980s due to consumer preference for natural products and the banning of certain synthetic colorants in the Japanese market.Developed countries have been increasingly importing annatto extracts and also calling for stricter quality requirements on imported seed. Annual crop production in Peru, the largest producer, varies considerably due to price fluctuations and the simultaneous harvesting of coffee.6


1 Chevallier A. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.; 1996.

2 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; 2001.

3 Armstrong WP. Natural dyes. HerbalGram 1994;32:30.

4 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.; 1996.

5 Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 1996.

6 Non-wood Forest Products 4: Natural colourants and dyestuffs[Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website]. 1995. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2004.