AppearanceThe 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 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 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.
UsesAchiote 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.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.
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