The Annato is a fascinating tree, and chances are you have consumed a by-product of the seeds at some point in your life. This will be a three part series, the first of which focuses on what foods the Annato can be found in, and it’s sometimes allergenic component.
The Annatos’ structure and large white flowers make it look very similar to the North American Magnolia Tree. The Annato is 2-8 m / 6-26 feet tall, has several short, dark brown branches that serve as the trunk, dark green leaves and a rounded shaped crown. The Annato seed pods are covered with soft, stiff hairs. When mature, the pods split open exposing rusty red seeds that are harvested, ground to a pulp and used in many useful ways. Grown all over the tropics for its rich, tasty and colorful seeds, it has different names all over the world. Other common Belize names for this unique shrub are the Lipstick Tree and Mayan name, Kuxub. Mexico and many other Latin American countries refer to it as Achiote. The French name is Rocou or Roucou. The Mandarin Chinese call it Yan Zhi Shu. In the Philippines, it goes by the name Atsuete, and in India, it’s known as Sindoor. Its scientific name is Bizaceae Bixa Orellan.
The Annato seed pulp is the primary ingredient in the Belizean spice called, Recardo, and used in many Belizean stewed dishes.
The Annato gives foods a wonderfully delicate smokey. It also adds a deep rusty yellow to redish-orange color, and is a low cost substitute for the much more expensive Spanish Saffron. It’s also commonly used as a natural food coloring in processed foods. This “natural” description is the reason for Annatos’ increased use worldwide as a food ingredient since it has replaced many synthetically manufactured food dyes and artificial flavorings.
Friend or Foe?
Natural ingredient does not necessarily mean problem free. Although it is a popular natural food colorant, Annato has been linked to many cases of food-related allergies. For many people suffering from skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), respiratory or cardiac abnormalities, Annato may be the cause! Lactose intolerance is a popular self-diagnosis but it might be the Annato in the cheese or flavored creamer.
Just like those folks whom are allergic to peanuts and nuts, Annatos’ chemical defense against its seeds being eaten in the wild can trigger adverse reactions in some people.
People are unaware of Annato as an ingredient in so many processed foods. On food labels in North America, its ingredient name may be listed as bixin, bixa arellana, or bixa orellana, bixaceae, annatto, achiote or included in the term “natural” food flavoring or coloring.
Foods Containing Annato: partial list
Yellow cheeses, including American and Velvetta cheese
Some white cheeses
Most Crackers (include Goldfish & Cheez-its): Triscuits are Annato free.
Most dry cereals (including Cheerios): Rice Krispies are Annato free
Bottled/Commercial salad dressings
Ice cream: Usually light colors like vanilla, butter pecan, chocolate chip
Ice cream cones
Coffeemate and Cremora
Prepared mustard based dips and spreads: French’s and Heinz mustards are Annato free
Medications: Capsules with coloring
Rice noodles in Thai, Chinese food
Chicken bouillon, cubes only
Crystal Light drink mixes
PAM with butter: Original PAM is Annato free
Herbed butter and garlic butter spreads
Knorr dry mixes (e.g. Spanish rice)
Popcorn: microwave and theatre
Organic Coloring Agent or “Color added” ingredient on labels
Italian, Garlic and Herb Bread spreads
“Rubs” barbeque seasonings used to flavor chicken and ribs
Matzo ball mix (some)
Some prepared weight loss program meals
Toddler foods, including yogurt, & some dried fruit bars
Heinz Little Kids Wholegrain Cereal bars - Apple & Cinnamon, Apricot
Fruit bars and dried fruit: Apricot Delight and apricot fruit bars in particular
Corn nuts with seasoning
Fruit Juice drinks
Rice seasoning packaged mixes
Girl Scout Cookies: Lemon in particular
Packaged powdered donuts and other prepared pastries and cookies
Cheddar Rice Cakes
Packaged Spanish rice mix
Rice Noodles, Pad Thai & Chinese rice noodle packaged meals: Pure rice is Annato free.
Crumbed chicken and fish products, like nuggets and fingers
Artificial crab meat
Some frozen potato products (fries, hashed browns, etc.)
“Artificial color” could have Annatto. In the USA, manufacturers do not have to list Annatto as an ingredient as it is organic.
At Lower Dover, learning about the chemical nature of plants on Medicinal Jungle Trails make your visit here memorable and entertaining. The Annato is a favorite stop for most people as it’s widely used and yet quite unknown. Think about how you feel when you eat some of the above listed processed foods and consider how the Annato’s chemical defense is effecting you.
Forsyth, Adrian and Ken Miyata. Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forest of Central and South America. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Harris, Kate. Trees of Belize. Benque, Belize; BRC Printing, 2009.
ANNATTO: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings. WebMD. 1999-07-30.
What’s Up With Food Dyes?. Healthy Recipe Doctor. WebMD. 2010-07-09.
An Allergy to Goldfish? Highlighting the Labeling Laws for Food Additives. U.S. National Library of Medicine. December 1, 2009. PMC 2805955.