9 Incredible Benefits of Annatto (Atsuete)

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

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The most impressive health benefits of annatto include its ability to promote healthy digestion, strengthen bones, prevent neural tube defects, promote healing, lower fevers, boost eye health, eliminate headaches, reduce nausea, and protect respiratory distress.

What is Annatto?

Annatto is a natural food coloring and condiment that is extracted from the seeds of the achiote fruit. The achiote tree (Bixa Orellana) is a tropical shrub or small tree that grows in Central and South America. The flowers of this tropical tree are white or bright pink, but the fruit is the most desirable part of the plant, made up of spiky brown and red pods that grow in clusters. When those pods dry and crack open, they expose seeds of red color, from which red pigment can be extracted. This is why the achiote tree is often called the lipstick tree. It is also called chitoe, onoto, bija, colorau, urucum, or atsuete in different regions.

Annatto’s strong pigmentation makes it a natural dye which can range from yellow to deep orange to red, and it has plenty of applications in cosmetics.  It is also used as a condiment in certain parts of the world. It has a floral and nutty smell and is mildly peppery to taste. In the Caribbean and Central American cultures, annatto has been used for thousands of years to treat everything from mild to potentially life-threatening diseases, making it an ancient “superfood”.

Nutrition Facts

Annatto has a rich source of antioxidants such as cis-bixin, carotenoids, and vitamin A. It also contains minerals like calcium, sodium, and iron. It has a relatively high content of dietary fiber. The high concentration of tocotrienols, which are similar in effects and structure as vitamin E, makes this plant substance powerful.

Health Benefits of Annatto

Now, let’s take a closer look at the impressive health benefits of annatto.


Annatto, due to its powerful antioxidants, possesses antimicrobial properties and it can kill various pathogens, and bacteria in the body. It is also very effective against various foodborne diseases.

Close-up fresh annatto seeds in the forest

Annatto seed is also known as achiote or poor man’s saffron. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Healthy Digestion

The high level of fiber found in annatto seeds, as well as the edible leaves of the achiote plant, is good for digestion. It promotes the smooth passage of food through the bowels and the efficient uptake of nutrients.

Strengthens Bones

significant level of calcium found in annatto makes it important for you if you want to supplement your bone mineral density and ensure strength and durability as you age. It also helps prevent osteoporosis.

Prevents Birth Defects

There is an impressive amount of folate (folic acid) found in annatto, and while there are many important benefits of this vitamin, preventing neural tube defects in newborn children might be the most important. Pregnant women are encouraged to boost their folic acid levels to prevent these types of conditions.

Eye Care

The high carotenoid content, present in annatto, functions as antioxidants in your ocular system and prevent the development of cataracts, while also staving off macular degeneration, keeping your vision strong for years.

Skin Care

Tocotrienols, present in annatto, act as antioxidants, which is one of the reasons that it is so sought after for the treatment of the skin. If you’ve been looking for an anti-aging solution for your skin, annatto paste made from the seeds can be topically applied to reduce the signs of wrinkles, blemishes, and other imperfections, while also tightening up the skin and making it look younger.

Heals Wounds

If you have suffered from burns or wounds on the skin, or are suffering from skin irritation of any kind, annatto seed paste can be applied to speed the healing process. It also reduces the appearance of scars. Also, its natural antimicrobial nature can help prevent infections.

Relieves Stomach Issues

Annatto is often consumed to calm an upset stomach. It also functions like a stomachic, treating heartburn and discomfort, which may be associated with everything from viral infections to simply eating too much spicy food.

Expectorant Properties

Annatto seeds have expectorant properties. Therefore, they are used to prevent mucus-related disorders like coughs, asthma, and bronchitis. It also clears the mucus from the lungs.

Diuretic Properties

Annatto leaves, due to their diuretic properties, provide better functioning of kidneys. Consuming the dried leaf powder daily protects you from various irreversible kidney damages, as well as malaria and fever.


Annatto seeds help balance, detoxify, metabolize, and strengthen the liver. It also helps to reduce liver inflammation. Scientists have shown the role of bixin in destroying the harmful free radicals in the liver.

Treats Gonorrhea

Annatto has been proven over the centuries to be an effective herbal treatment for gonorrhea. For those suffering from the painful and embarrassing condition, using its paste either internally or topically can be very effective for clearing up that particular STD.

Anticancer Potential

Norbixin is one of the pigments found in annatto seeds and is known to be a powerful antioxidant. In recent research, it was shown that norbixin has a decidedly anti-mutagenic effect on healthy cells exposed to cancerous cells and free radicals, meaning that the seeds may be able to help prevent a variety of different cancers from spreading. A study published by a team of Brazilian researchers in the Human and Experimental Toxicology Journal, annatto is a potential alternative of cancer prevention strategies, even though additional information and research need to be conducted to corroborate the issue.

May Lower Blood Sugar Levels

A research team from Brazil found that annatto exerted a hypoglycemic effect on laboratory rats with drug-induced diabetes. However, further research is required to understand the effect of the spice on blood glucose levels.


Since traditional days to modern times, annatto has been used for different purposes in the following ways;

  • Cosmetic products: Beauty and skincare industries use it in cosmetics and personal care products to impart color and for its antimicrobial properties.
  • Insect repellent: It is also used as mosquito and flies repellent.
  • Pharmaceutical products: It is used to impart color to capsules, vitamins, and pills.
  • A cure for headaches: Crushed annatto leaves mixed with coconut oil is applied on the forehead to treat headaches.
  • Condiment and dye: The paste and powdered form of annatto are used in a variety of cuisines including those of Jamaica, Caribbean, and Latin America, to impart bold flavor, color, and aroma.
  • Annatto Oil: Its seeds are also used to make oil which is an essential ingredient in many Asian dishes.
  • Meat Marination: Annatto-colored seasonings are used to marinate meat.

Side Effects

Annatto is relatively safe to use. However, it could have certain side-effects.

  • Hypersensitivity: People who are hypersensitive may show allergic reactions to annatto, some may even suffer from anaphylaxis. So avoid use in case you are allergic to it.
  • Pregnant & lactating women: Highly sensitive women could be allergic to annatto. Therefore, pregnant and lactating women are advised to consult a doctor before consuming it.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may worsen their conditions if they consume annatto.
  • People with diabetes: Annatto affects blood sugar levels in the body. Therefore, people who are on diabetes medication should consult a doctor before adding it to their diet.

Other than that, annatto is amazing health benefits. Therefore, go ahead and color your food with annatto!

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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