Bixa orellana

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Achiote pj.JPG
Achiote seed pods
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Malvales
Family: Bixaceae
Genus: Bixa
Species: B. orellana
Binomial name
Bixa orellana
  • Bixa tinctaria Salisb.
  • Orellana orellana (L.) Kuntze
  • Bixa orleana Noronha
  • Bixa americana Poir.
  • Bixa purpurea Sweet
  • Bixa odorata Ruiz & Pav. ex G.Don
  • Bixa acuminata Bojer
  • Orellana americana (Poir.) Kuntze
  • Bixa upatensis Ram.Goyena
  • Bixa katangensis Delpierre

Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a shrub or small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. Central and South American natives originally used the seeds to make red body paint and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the lipstick tree.

The tree is best known as the source of annatto, a natural orange-red condiment (also called "achiote" or "bijol") obtained from the waxy arils that cover its seeds. The ground seeds are widely used in traditional dishes in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico; such as cochinita pibil, chicken in achiote and caldo de olla. Annatto and its extracts are also used as an industrial food coloring to add yellow or orange color to many products such as butter, cheese, sausages, cakes, and popcorn.

The species name was given by Linnaeus after the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, an early explorer of the Amazon River.[2] The name achiote derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, āchiotl /aːˈt͡ʃiot͡ɬ/. It may also be referred to as aploppas, or by its original Tupi name uruku, urucu or urucum ("red color"), which is also used for the body paint prepared from its seeds.


Bixa orellana is a tall shrub to small evergreen tree 20–33 ft (6–10 m) high. It bears clusters of 2 in (5 cm) bright white to pink flowers, resembling single wild roses, appearing at the tips of the branches. The fruits are in clusters: spiky looking red-brown seed pods covered in soft spines. Each pod contains many seeds covered with a thin waxy blood-red aril. When fully mature, the pod dries, hardens, and splits open, exposing the seeds.

The color of the seed coating is due mainly to the carotenoid pigments bixin and norbixin.


Achiote flower.
Mature achiote pods, showing the red seeds.

Bixa orellana originated in South America but it has spread to many parts of the world. It is grown easily and quickly in frost-free regions, from sub-tropical to tropical climates, and sheltered from cool winds. It prefers year-round moisture, good drainage, and moderately fertile soil in full sun or partial shade. It can be propagated from seed and cuttings. Cutting-grown plants flower at a younger age than seedlings.[3]

The main commercial producers are countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and also India and Sri Lanka, where it was introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century. Production statistics are not usually available, and would not provide a reliable guide to international trade since many of the producing countries use significant quantities domestically (e.g. Brazil is a large producer and consumer, needing additional imports). Annual world production of dried annatto seed at the beginning of the 21st century was estimated at about 10,000 tons, of which 7,000 tons enter international trade. Peru is the largest exporter of annatto seed, annually about 4,000 tons; Brazil the largest producer with about 5,000 tons. Kenya exports annually about 1,500 tons annatto seed and extracts and is the second-largest exporter, after Peru. Côte d'Ivoire and Angola are also exporters.[4]

Culinary uses[edit]

Ground Bixa orellana seeds, often mixed with other seeds or spices, are used in form of paste or powder for culinary use, especially in Latin American, Jamaican, Chamorro, and Filipino cuisines. The coloring and flavoring substances from the aril can also be extracted by heating the seeds in oil or lard, which is then used in cooking. These condiments are used on many dishes and processed foods, such as cheese, butter, soups, gravies and sauces, cured meats, and many more. They are used mainly to impart a yellow to reddish-orange color to the food, but to some extent also for their subtle flavor and aroma. They can be used to color and flavor rice instead of the much more expensive saffron.

In Brazil, the seeds ground to a powder (often with other filler seeds, like maize) known as colorau or colorífico, similar to paprika and sometimes used as a replacement for it.[5]

The Yucatecan condiment called recado rojo, or "achiote paste", is made by grinding the seeds together with other spices. It is a mainstay of the Mexican and Belizean cuisines. A similar condiment, called sazón ("seasoning"), is commonly used in the cuisine of Puerto Rico for meats and fish.

Industrial uses[edit]

Before synthetic dyes revolutionized industry, the tree was planted commercially for the pigment, extracted by solvent or boiling the seeds in oil, which was used to color cheese, margarine, chocolate, fabric and paints.

In several European countries (e.g. Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway) that pigment has been and often still is used as color in margarines and several other foods. The seeds are collected from wild-growing bushes or from plantations, in Latin America, Africa (e.g. Kenya), and Asia. However, since no strong organization promotes the use of annatto, the color beta carotene, which is more expensive, has pushed the natural pigment out of many applications.

Traditional and potential medical uses[edit]

The red paint prepared from the seeds has been used by American natives as a sunscreen and for the treatment of sunburn.[citation needed] Possible medical and nutritional properties of annatto extract have been investigated.

Other parts of the plant have been used in folk medicine and for the treatment of certain infections.[6] Extracts of the leaves of achiote showed antimicrobial activity in vitro against Gram-positive microorganisms, with maximum activity against Bacillus pumilus.[7][non-primary source needed] The sesquiterpene ishwarane isolated from plant exhibited moderate antifungal activity in vitro.[8][non-primary source needed] Achiote leaves have been employed to treat malaria and leishmaniasis.[citation needed]

The tree was incorporated into the traditional medicine of India, where different parts of the plant are used as diuretic, laxative, antibilious, antiemetic, and astringent agents, as a blood purifier, in jaundice, in dysentery, and externally as scar-preventive.[9]

Other uses[edit]

Achiote has long been used by American Indians to make a bright red paint for the body and hair. Body-painting with urucu remains an important tradition of many Brazilian native tribes. It was reportedly used for body paint among the native Taínos in Borinquen, Puerto Rico. The use of achiote hair dye by men of the Tsáchila of Ecuador is the origin of their Spanish name, the Colorados.

The Aztec people of Mexico used achiote seeds as source of a red ink for manuscript painting in the 16th century.[10]

The plant is also valued for its stem fibre (used in rope mats) and an adhesive gum which is extracted from all parts.[11][12][13]



  1. ^ Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
  2. ^ Levy, Luis W.; Rivadeneira, Diana M. (2000). "Annatto". In Lauro, Gabriel J.; Francis, F. Jack. Natural Food Colorants Science and Technology. IFT Basic Symposium Series. New York: Marcel Dekker. p. 115. ISBN 0-8247-0421-5. 
  3. ^ Lord, Tony (2003) Flora : The Gardener's Bible : More than 20,000 garden plants from around the world. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-36435-5
  4. ^ Jansen, P.C.M. (2005). Jansen, P.C.M.; Cardon, D., eds. "Bixa orellana L.". PROTA 3: Dyes and tannins/Colorants et tanins. PROTA. Archived from the original on 20 Nov 2008. Retrieved 5 Oct 2014. 
  5. ^ "New Crops from Brazil". Purdue University. 1990. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  6. ^ "Health benefits of Achiote (Bixa orellana)". Herbcyclopedia. Retrieved 14 Dec 2012. 
  7. ^ Fleischer, T.C; Ameade, E.P.K; Mensah, M.L.K; Sawer, I.K (2003). "Antimicrobial activity of the leaves and seeds of Bixa orellana". Fitoterapia 74 (1–2): 136–8. doi:10.1016/S0367-326X(02)00289-7. PMID 12628409. 
  8. ^ Raga, Dennis D.; Espiritu, Rafael A.; Shen, Chien-Chang; Ragasa, Consolacion Y. (2010). "A bioactive sesquiterpene from Bixa orellana". Journal of Natural Medicines 65 (1): 206–11. doi:10.1007/s11418-010-0459-9. PMID 20882359. 
  9. ^ Khare, C.P. (2007). Indian Medicinal Plants. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. ISBN 978-0-387-70638-2.  cited in Wanga, Limei; Waltenbergerb, Birgit; Pferschy-Wenzigc, Eva-Maria et al. (30 July 2014). "Natural product agonists of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARγ): a review". Biochemical Pharmacology (Elsevier). doi:10.1016/j.bcp.2014.07.018. ISSN 0006-2952. PMC 4212005. PMID 25083916. Retrieved 9 Aug 2014. 
  10. ^ "Colorants Used During Mexico's Early Colonial Period". Stanford University. 1997. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  11. ^ Ellison, Don (1999) Cultivated Plants of the World. London: New Holland (1st ed.: Brisbane: Flora Publications International, 1995)
  12. ^ Graf, Alfred Byrd (1986) Tropica: color cyclopedia of exotic plants and trees for warm-region horticulture--in cool climate the summer garden or sheltered indoors; 3rd ed. East Rutherford, N.J.: Roehrs Co
  13. ^ Macoboy, Stirling (1979) What Tree is That?, Sydney, Australia (1st ed.: Sydney: Ure Smith). ISBN 0-7254-0480-9

Further reading[edit]

  • Van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005). Food Plants of the World. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, Inc. ISBN 0-88192-743-0