Annatto (Bixa orellana) seeds release a pigmented coloring that’s used to color soups, stews, marinades and spice rubs. It’s a staple ingredient in Latin American cuisine, where it can be found in the yellow rice of arroz con pollo and the spice blend Goya’s Sazon that says “con culantro y achiote,” and it’s also incorporated into many Caribbean dishes such as cochinita pibil, Jamaican callaloo and Haitian black beans. Annatto is a major source of tocotrienols, which are vitamin-like compounds that have been linked to reducing cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.
The annatto seed’s natural pigmentation comes from the chemical compounds bixin and norbixin, which are classified as carotenoids. The fat-soluble bixin can be saponified into the water-soluble norbixin, giving annatto its dual solubility—a trait that’s rare among carotenes. A higher concentration of norbixin results in a brighter orange hue, while bixin provides a lighter yellow shade.
While annatto is safe for most people, it should be avoided by anyone with an intolerance or allergy. It can cause allergic reactions such as hives, swelling and abdominal pain in some people. It’s also not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as it may stimulate gastrointestinal distress in some women. Those with IBS should be especially mindful of their intake, as it’s been reported to trigger symptoms in some people. If you develop itching, swelling or abdominal pain after consuming annatto, stop eating the food and contact your doctor. A small amount of annatto can also trigger IBS in those with sensitivities, so it’s important to read labels carefully to assess potential risks.