The tiny seeds found inside the fruit of Bixa orellana—better known as annatto—are responsible for an estimated 70% of natural food colorings, reports Healthline. The orange-red seeds, which can be ground into powder or infused into oil, are used in traditional dishes from around the world. Mimolette, an orange-colored semi-hard cow’s milk cheese from France, gets its color from annatto, as do yellow cheddar and some mustards and margarines. Annatto is also an ingredient in the popular Latin American paste sazon.
Ground annatto can be stored in a spice jar like other dry spices, and can be sprinkled on meats or stirred into rice dishes. It can also be mixed with chili flakes and black pepper, or coriander and cumin to make a rub for pork or chicken. It can be infused into oils to flavor and color them, or made into a paste. The resulting paste or oil can be kept in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to three years.
In tribal cultures, annatto has been used for its decorative and healing properties as well as to color foods. The Mayans wrote scriptures in annatto ink; the Piura tribe makes a brew to treat headaches, and the seeds are used as body paint in Peru. Applied as a skin treatment, annatto prevents sunburn and repels insects.
Research is ongoing to explore annatto’s many therapeutic properties, including its ability to promote healthy digestion and strengthen bones. The plant is high in tocotrienols, chemicals that are similar to vitamin A but have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Those with allergies should be cautious since the seeds can cause hives in some people.