Annatto is cultivated for its seed, which is the source of a natural colourant used in food and cosmetics.
A native of tropical America, its natural range extends from near Mazatlán, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, south through Central and South America, to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil.
It is a low-branching shrub or small tree 2 to 8 m (7 to 26 ft) tall, occasionally with a single trunk up to 10 cm (4 in) in diameter, though more typically with multiple stems in a V-shape, forming a wide-spreading crown. The bark is dark brown, dotted with wart-like pores known as lenticels and when wounded oozes an orange coloured sap, particularly from older trees.
Leaves heart-shaped, 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 in) long, glossy dark green on top, greyish underneath, occasionally with burgundy veining, and on stalks up to 7.5 cm (3 in) long. They are arranged alternately along the stems at the ends of the branches and remain on the plant throughout the year.
The flowers are with four to seven petals, 4 to 5 cm (1.5 to 2 in) across, white or pale pink and borne in clusters of up to fifty at the tips of the branches. They are perfect, with both female and male parts but need insects for effective pollination.
Fertilised flowers are followed by egg-shaped seedpods up to 5 cm (2 in) long covered in coarse, bristle-like hairs. They are green when young, become bright pink or red when mature (eventually dark brown when dry), then split open into two halves exposing many small triangular-shaped seed, covered in a thin coating of red-orange pulp.
Annatto seed inside split seedpod
The thin layer of pulp covering the seed is one of the world's most widely used natural colourants, prized for its rich tones of yellow and orange, as well as its subtle flavour. It is extracted by grinding and washing the seed, then filtering, drying and pressing it into cakes.
Annatto seed pulp has a long history of use by the dairy industry, to give butter, margarine and cheeses such as cheddar their rich yellow or orange colour. It is also commonly used as a colourant in bakery goods, smoked fish, meat and meat products, including sausage casings, salad oil, popcorn oil, packaged soups, sauces and relishes.
In the home kitchen, the seed are heated in cooking oil to infuse a deep orange colour. The infused oil is then kept and used for frying, especially in Guatemala and Mexico, to colour meat, fish and rice dishes and to impart a subtle, earthy flavour.
Introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish, the seeds are now closely associated with Filipino cuisine and are used in various rice, chicken, beef and shrimp dishes. It is the closest substitute for saffron, which is used to add colour and flavour to classic European dishes, such as Bouillabaisse, the famous French seafood dish and Paella, the popular rice, seafood and meat dish from Spain.
The dried seed have a crude-protein content of about 7% of their dry weight and are added to poultry rations (feed) to give colour to the meat and eggs, effectively increasing their yellow colour intensity, especially the egg yolks.
Non-food uses of the pulp include dyes and colours developed for the cosmetics industry, such as those used in lipstick and hair colouring, and colour formulations developed for coating pills and tablets.
In recent times, the trend towards the use of natural colourants, together with increasing restrictions on the use of some synthetic colourants and the relative instability of most other natural colourants in the yellow to red spectrum has led to an increase in the demand and production of annatto pulp.
Grows naturally in moderately humid to humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally frost-free areas with annual lows of 16 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1000 to 4500 mm and a dry season of 5 months or less.
New plants are usually raised from seed or cuttings, but cuttings are preferred because they flower and fruit sooner than seed-grown plants do.
Performs best on rich, free-draining clay and loam soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.0 to 7.5, and on sites with full to partial sun exposure.
The mature seedpods should be harvested before they have opened on the tree, to avoid the seed becoming exposed and damp, which reduces their quality.
It is widely introduced and cultivated throughout the tropics and subtropics and is naturalised in many countries. It is assessed as a low weed risk for Hawaii, by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA). However, in Australia, it is reported as having escaped cultivation and a weed of the natural environment.
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