What is Annatto? Its Function in Food Products, Nutritional Info, FDA Requirement

What is Annatto?

Annatto is extracted from the reddish pericap enclosed the seed of the achiote tree. The seed is available whole or ground, appearing very deep red, with a slightly nutty and sweet flavor. It is flavouring and colouring agent.  It’s used to produce a yellow to orange food coloring.

  • an orange-red dye obtained from the seed coat of a tropical fruit, used for colouring foods.
  • the tropical American tree that yields the fruit from which annatto is obtained.

Also Read: What is Dry Yeast? (INSTANT OR ACTIVE) – Production, Uses, FDA Approval

History and Origin of Annatto Coloring & Flavoring

Annatto seed contains typically 4.5–5.5% pigments, which consist of 70–80% bixin. Traditionally the ground seeds have been used as a condiment in Brazil, as a make-up and as a herbal medicine with a wide range of postulated benefits.

The tree is mainly cultivated and subsequently annatto is produced in South America, East Africa, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic and India.

Types of Annatto

There are two forms of annatto, which differ in their solubility. The water-soluble form is called nor-bixin and the oil-soluble form bixin. Both forms start from the resinous material that surrounds the annatto tree seed and different methods of extraction give the different forms.

Bixin is extracted with non-polar solvents including vegetable oil and nor-bixin is extracted in the presence of an alkali leading to the hydrolysis of bixin. 

Also Read: Artificial Colours are Being used in Food Products? Good or Bad for Health?

Annatto Functions in Food Products

Annatto is a yellow-orange food colour additive widely used by cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and food industries.

  • It is used in smoked fish, beverages, bakery, and dairy (cheese, margarine) industries.
  • Besides its colouring effects, annatto extracts add a slightly sweet and peppery taste to edible products.
  • The more bixin is present in an annatto colourant, the more orange it is, while a higher level of norbixin results in a more yellow shade.

Annatto is used as a Substitute: Bixin and/or norbixin are sometimes used as a substitute for saffron

Is Annatto Consumption Safe? – Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of Annatto

Annatto is usually considered as safe for most people when used in low amounts as it does not exhibit any mutagenic, carcinogenic, or genotoxic effects. (Alves de Lima et al., 2003; Hagiwara et al., 2003).

However, adverse reactions associated with annatto dye ingestion have been reported (Auttachoat et al., 2011), indeed, current nutritional and medical research suggests that annatto could present a positive action on cancer.

Norbixin isomers are responsible for the antimicrobial activity specific for Gram-positive bacteria found in annatto extracts (Huhtanen, 1980; Galindo-Cuspinera et al., 2003). For a recent evaluation of putative and established potential of annatto on health, see the comprehensive review by Ulbricht et al. (2012).

Annatto is sometimes put directly on the affected area to treat burns and vaginal infections and to repel insects.

Also Read: What are seven FDA food certified color Additives?

If you would like to avoid annatto as a food additive, consider avoiding the following the food products which Stein lists in his letter as containing annatto:

  • Yellow cheeses: American, Cheddar, and Velveeta
  • Most crackers
  • Almost all cereals
  • Wishbone Italian Dressing and other commercial dressings
  • Light-colored ice creams: vanilla, butter pecan, vanilla swirl, chocolate chip, vanilla fudge
  • Gourmet mustards
  • Some capsule medications and vitamins and minerals: both prescription and over-the-counter
  • Chicken bouillon cubes
  • Commercial potato salads
  • Sugar-free Jell-O
  • Crystallight mixes
  • Pam with butter
  • Cooked/roasted or barbecue chicken at grocery stores that are ready-to-eat
  • Butter (so always check labels)
  • Microwave and theater popcorn
  • Spreads for Italian, cheese or garlic bread, and prepared Italian bread
  • Powdered donuts

Nutritional Information of Annatto

Annatto is a rich source of antioxidants and Vitamin E. Some food allergens have been linked to the presence of annatto extract, however, it is not considered one of the eight major food allergens.

FDA Requirements on the use of Annatto in Food Products


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