Achiote: Add Color to Your Plate With This Spice

Achiote (Bixa orellana), or annatto, is a spice that is used by a large portion of the world's population. It's easy to decipher whether a dish contains achiote through the distinct red-orange color that it gives off. While the main use for achiote is for dyeing and coloring, it also adds a subtle flavor to any dish. In small amounts, achiote does not exude a very strong flavor, but if used copiously, people have noted that it has a subtle peppery taste with a nutty and sweet aroma.1

This spice is largely used in Latin American and Asian cuisine. It's widely known in South America in particular, where it is believed to have originated.2 Achiote was also introduced to other countries by trade, which explains its widespread use in various regions. Accounts say that marketeers from Mexico first traded achiote seeds and followed the trade routes of other spices, which then led to its introduction to Europe, Africa and Asia.

Nowadays, it is still utilized by the Tsachila in Ecuador as a hair dye and by the Zo'e tribe of Brazil as body paint.3 While people usually value it for its color, achiote has also been used for its medicinal properties, and is now being studied for its antioxidative and anticancer effects.4

Nutritional Benefits You Get From Achiote

Consuming achiote offers various health benefits, as it contains vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as:

  • Carotenoids. The achiote plant contains the carotenoid bixin, which is solely found in this plant. Bixin has been observed to seek out reactive oxygen species (ROS) and minimize the risk of diabetic complications that may be caused by oxidative stress. This component also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help in speeding up wound healing.5
  • Antimicrobial compounds. The methanolic extract taken from achiote leaves has been the subject of numerous studies, with the results showing its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has also been used in folkloric medicine to help ease gonorrhea and skin conditions.6
  • Calcium. Achiote contains a considerable amount of calcium, which is essential for maintaining bone health and preventing bone deterioration brought on by aging.
  • Folate. It offers high amounts of folate, which is necessary for a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women are advised to eat food that is rich in folate to aid in the development of the fetus and to avoid the risk of birth defects.7

Alternative Ways to Use the Achiote Plant

The seeds of this plant are usually processed and sold as either achiote paste or achiote powder. While the most utilized part of the plant is the achiote seeds, the leaves, roots and bark can also be used medicinally. Here are some other ways to use the achiote plant:8

  • To alleviate fever, you can boil the leaves and apply them to your head and body.
  • To accelerate wound healing, a concoction of the achiote leaves may be used in washing wounds. Bixin is also extracted from the achiote plant for its anti-inflammatory properties.9
  • To ease sore throat, you can boil young leaves and use it as a gargle. Make sure that the concoction cools to avoid accidentally scalding your mouth.
  • To soothe burns, the seeds can be ground, boiled and applied to burns.

It has also been used as a laxative, cardiotonic, expectorant and antibiotic. Indigenous people have also used achiote seeds topically to shield themselves from the effects of too much ultraviolet exposure.10

Grow Your Own Organic Achiote

Achiote can be planted directly in the ground in warm-weather locations, but it should be planted in a large container in other regions. Achiote thrives in tropical environments and is usually planted in warmer regions. Because of the varying temperatures and location, achiote plants have different flowering and maturing time.11 Here is a step-by-step guide on how you can grow your own achiote plant:12

  1. Plant the seeds in well-drained, sandy compost. They can be planted at any time of the year.
  2. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of sand or grit. Keep the sand moist. The temperature should be kept at around 60 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Wait for the seeds to germinate. It normally takes about four to six weeks, but it can take much longer.

Try These Tasty and Healthy Achiote Recipes

Cooking with achiote paste is not a foreign concept for some people, especially if they are familiar with Latin American recipes. Achiote paste is a popular Yucatecan ingredient, and is usually called "recado rojo." It's generally a mixture of annatto seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries, cumin and other spices. Judging by the wide variety of spices present in recado rojo, many people ask what achiote paste tastes like. The paste actually has an earthy and zesty flavor, which goes great with chicken and other meats.

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