Achiote, also known as annatto, is a popular culinary ingredient that comes from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana). The bright red-orange color and mild, earthy flavor of achiote has made it an integral part of the cuisine and culture of many Latin American, Caribbean, and Filipino dishes for centuries. But what is the origin and history behind this distinctive spice?
Etymology and Origins
The name ‘achiote’ comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word ‘āchiōtl’ meaning ‘spiny plant’. The achiote tree is native to tropical regions of the Americas, spanning from Mexico to Peru and Brazil. Archaeological evidence suggests achiote seeds were used for coloring textiles and body paint as far back as 800-500 BC in Peru.
The indigenous peoples of Mexico domesticated the achiote plant around 5600 BC. In Aztec culture and cuisine, āchiōtl provided a bright red coloring for dishes like tamales and moles. The vivid color symbolized blood and the fertility of life. When Spanish colonizers arrived in the 1500s-1600s, they adopted the use of annatto (from the Arawak word anotto) seed for color and flavor in cooking.
So while the achiote plant originated in ancient Mesoamerican and South American cultures, its culinary use expanded with the influence of Spanish colonization and trade networks. The language and etymology point to the deep roots of achiote in indigenous Latin American cuisines.
Achiote seeds provide a bright reddish-orange color and a mild, slightly sweet and peppery flavor to foods. The seeds are mixed with other spices and ingredients to make a paste, oil, or powder for adding to dishes and sauces. Some of the most common uses of achiote around Latin America and the Caribbean include:
In Mexico, achiote paste and powder is used to color and flavor mole sauces, tamales, rice dishes, and salsas. It’s an essential ingredient in Yucatan cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pork) giving the meat its iconic red-orange marinade. Achiote oil is used for frying and adds color to Mexican recados (spice pastes).
In Belizean cooking, achiote oil made from ground seeds is used heavily in fish, meat, and poultry dishes. The oil provides the base for marinades and gives that vibrant hue to traditional dishes like grilled chicken, stewed beans, and ceviche. Ground achiote seeds are also used in salsas and tamales.
In Puerto Rican cuisine, achiote oil is used for sautéing and frying. A paste made from ground achiote, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and citrus juice is used as a marinade and smeared under chicken skin before roasting for a bright and flavorful lechón asado (roast chicken). The spice blend for Puerto Rican arroz con gandules rice contains achiote for seasoning and color.
Cuban cooking uses achiote for the iconic ajiaco stew, ropa vieja shredded beef, and the marinade for Vaca frita (fried cow). Ground achiote combined with other spices makes up the sofrito base for beans, stews, and rice dishes. Achiote oil brings color and added flavor when frying or sautéing foods.
The Dominican recipe for locrio de pollo (chicken and rice) includes annatto oil for frying the chicken before stewing it with the rice. Sprinkling annatto powder over meat before grilling is also common. Oil and ground achiote help create the deep red-orange color in beans and stews like Dominican sancocho.
In Panamanian cooking, achiote oil and seeds are used in seafood dishes like camarones al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce). Achiote also adds bold coloring and flavor to ropa vieja, tamales, empanadas, arroz con pollo, and other national dishes.
Introduced by Spanish colonists, achuete oil and ground powder became a staple in Filipino cuisine. It colors and enhances the flavor of stews like pinakbet, chicken inasal, and kilawin (ceviche), as well as sauces and marinades. A popular pork dish is batal bihon which uses achuete water to color glass noodles.
Beyond culinary uses, achiote has had cultural, symbolic, and traditional importance for indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America.
In Aztec mythology, the achiote plant was associated with one of the creation gods, Nanahuatl. The myth tells how Nanahuatl sacrificed himself using an achiote tree to create the sun and moon.
Achiote’s red coloring made it useful for rituals among Mesoamerican civilizations. Aztecs used it to paint faces of idols, write hieroglyphics, and symbolize blood in sacrifices. For Mayans, achiote adorned the bodies of warriors and athletes in ceremonies.
Today in Mexico and Central America, achiote seeds and paste are used to create body paint, lipstick, and decorations for indigenous festivals. The bright dye represents fertility, life, and celebration during events like La Guelaguetza, Inti Raymi, Día de Los Muertos, and Carnaval.
Historically, indigenous people of Latin America used achiote for coloring skin, lips, cheeks, and even hair. It provided natural red pigment before modern cosmetics. Some indigenous communities still use annatto seeds boiled in oils as natural makeup today.
Archaeological evidence shows achiote being used to dye the cloth and textiles of pre-Columbian Latin American civilizations as far back as 800 BC. The durable red-orange natural dye was important for coloring hammocks, clothing, bags, and ritual textiles.
While achiote continues to be an essential flavoring and coloring agent in Latin cuisine today, its popularity has spread around the world due to its natural, low-cost, and health benefits. Here are some of its most common modern uses globally:
Achiote oil made from soaked or heated seeds maintains the red-orange hue and imparts mild flavor. It replaces synthetic food coloring additives in cooking oils, butter, margarine, salad dressings, baked goods, confectionery, and more.
Annatto extract gives cheddar, leicester, and other cheeses their familiar orange color. It is used as a natural alternative to artificial cheese coloring.
Achiote has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In traditional medicine, it has been used to treat fever, diabetes, burns, and infections. Pharmaceutical research today has studied achiote’s potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial benefits.
Modern lipsticks, body paints, soaps, and skin care use annatto extract for its reddish pigment. It provides a natural alternative to synthetic FD&C Red No. 4 dye.
The textile industry utilizes achiote as an eco-friendly fabric dye. It dyes silk, cotton, leather, and wool in hues ranging from yellow to deep red.
Poultry and fish farmers often add achiote extracts to feed to naturally supplement health and intensify yellow skin tones. The carotenoids in achiote enhance the color of egg yolks as well.
Production and Cultivation
Achiote is produced from the reddish seeds from the fruit pods of the Bixa orellana tree. Here is an overview of achiote cultivation and production:
– Achiote trees grow well in tropical climates with hot, humid conditions. Major production areas are in Mexico, Belize, Peru, Kenya, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and India.
– The tree starts bearing fruit after 2-3 years. The spiky fruit pods ripen and turn brown or red when mature in 4-5 months.
– Pods are handpicked once ripe, then split open to collect the seeds inside. Seeds are dried well in the sun to prevent germination.
– Seeds are crushed and ground into a powder or soaked in oil to extract the orange-red pigment.
– The powder can be used as is or made into paste by mixing with vinegar, garlic, and spices.
– For oil, seeds are heated or soaked in vegetable oil for several days to transfer the annatto color.
– Extracts are also produced using solvents like hexane or alkaline water solutions.
– World production is around 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons annually.
– Peru is the top exporter accounting for around 70% of global exports. Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, and Ecuador also contribute exports.
– The US imports around 3,000 tons of annatto extracts and seeds annually for food and cosmetic use.
Health Benefits and Nutrition
Achiote contains antioxidant compounds like carotenoids, polyphenols, and flavonoids that provide potential health benefits:
The natural pigments (bixin and norbixin) in achiote act as antioxidants. They neutralize cell-damaging free radicals and reduce oxidative stress related to cancer, aging, diabetes, and more.
Achiote exhibits anti-inflammatory activity from its phenolic compounds. It inhibits enzymes like COX-2 to reduce inflammation in studies on cells and animals.
The seeds have an antimicrobial effect particularly against fungi like Candida albicans. Carotenoids damage fungal cell membranes providing antifungal benefits.
Test tube research finds achiote shows potential to inhibit cancer cell growth and spread. Specific cancers studied include skin, prostate, breast, and liver cancer. More research is needed to confirm effects in humans.
Some animal studies report achiote oil helping lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and raise HDL cholesterol. The mechanism is attributed to sterols and carotenoids.
Here is a quick overview of the nutrition in 1 tablespoon (8 grams) of achiote powder:
– Calories: 32
– Fat: 1g
– Carbs: 5g
– Fiber: 2g
– Protein: 1g
Achiote is rich in carotenoid pigments like bixin and norbixin. It also contains some vitamin E, calcium, zinc, and omega fats. The fiber content is beneficial for digestion. While not a significant source of protein or vitamins, achiote provides powerful antioxidant phytonutrients.
Achiote is an ancient, natural spice that continues to color and flavor foods from its origins in Latin America to the world. The mildly earthy, peppery seeds provide a natural source of red-orange pigment and beneficial compounds like carotenoids. Usage of achiote dates back centuries for culinary, cosmetic, ritual, and medicinal purposes among indigenous Mesoamerican and South American cultures.
Today it remains an integral ingredient in Mexican, Caribbean, Central American, and Filipino cuisines. Globally it sees widespread applications as a coloring in cooking, cosmetics, medicine, textiles, and more. The long history and modern rediscovery of achiote demonstrates the enduring value of this colorful spice across cultures and time. Its linguistic and botanical origins among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent the important contribution of Native Latin American cultures to global cuisines and traditions.