Database entry for Annatto - Bixa orellana Database entry for Annatto - Bixa orellana

Database File for:

(Bixa orellana)

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Annatto, Bixa Annatto, Bixa Annatto, Bixa PLANT

Annatto, Bixa


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  • Family: Bixaceae
    Genus: Bixa
    Species: orellana
    Synonyms: Bixa acuminata, B. americana, B. odorata, B. platycarpa, B. purpurea, B. tinctoria, B. upatensis, B. urucurana, Orellana americana, O. orellana
    Common names:achiote, achiotec, achiotl, achote, annatto, urucu, beninoki, bija, eroya, jafara, kasujmba-kelling, kham thai, onoto, orleanstrauch, orucu-axiote, rocou, roucou, ruku, roucouyer, unane, uruku, urucum, urucu-üva
    Parts Used: Seeds, Leaves, Bark, Roots, Shoots

    From The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs:

    Main Actions Other Actions Standard Dosage
  • reduces acid
  • reduces inflammation
  • Seed and Leaves
  • kills bacteria
  • stops coughing
  • Leaf Decoction: 1/2 cup 2-3
  • fights free radicals
  • dries secretions/oils
  • times daily
  • kills parasites
  • cleanses blood
  • Seed powder: 5-10 mg twice daily
  • kills germs
  • soothes membranes
  • increases urination
  • reduces phlegm
  • stimulates digestion
  • reduces fever
  • lowers blood pressure
  • raises blood sugar
  • mildly laxative
  • heals wounds
  • protects liver

    Annatto is a profusely fruiting shrub or small tree that grows 5-10 m in height. Approximately 50 seeds grow inside prickly reddish-orange heart-shaped pods at the ends of the branches. The trees are literally covered by these brightly colored pods, and one small annatto tree can produce up to 270 kg of seeds. The seeds are covered with a reddish aril, which is the source of an orange-yellow dye. Annatto is known as achiote in Peru and as urucum in Brazil. It grows throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean and can be found in some parts of Mexico as well.


    Traditionally, the crushed seeds are soaked in water that is allowed to evaporate. A brightly colored paste is produced which is added to soups, cheeses, and other foods to give them a bright yellow or orange color. Annatto seed paste produced in South America is exported to North America and Europe, where it is used as a food coloring for margarine, cheese, microwave popcorn, and other yellow or orange foodstuffs. Many times, this natural food coloring replaces the very expensive saffron in recipes and dishes around the world. Annatto paste is also used as a natural dye for cloth and wool and is sometimes employed in the paint, varnish, lacquer, cosmetic, and soap industries.

    Throughout the rainforest, indigenous tribes have used annatto seeds as body paint and as a fabric dye. It has been traced back to the ancient Mayan Indians, who employed it as a principal coloring agent in foods, for body paints, and as a coloring for arts, crafts, and murals. Although mostly only the seed paste or seed oil is used commercially today, the rainforest tribes have used the entire plant as medicine for centuries. A tea made with the young shoots is used by the Piura tribe as an aphrodisiac and astringent, and to treat skin problems, fevers, dysentery, and hepatitis. The leaves are used to treat skin problems, liver disease, and hepatitis. The plant has also been considered good for the digestive system. The Cojedes tribe uses an infusion of the flowers to stimulate the bowels and aid in elimination as well as to avoid phlegm in newborn babies. Traditional healers in Colombia have also used annatto as an antivenin for snakebites. The seeds are believed to be an expectorant, while the roots are thought to be a digestive aid and cough suppressant.

    Today in Brazilian herbal medicine, a leaf decoction of annatto is used to treat heartburn and stomach distress caused by spicy foods, and as a mild diuretic and mild laxative. It is also used for fevers and malaria, and, topically, to treat burns. Annatto is a common remedy in Peruvian herbal medicine today, and the dried leaves are called achiotec. Eight to ten dried leaves are boiled for 10 minutes in 1 liter of water for this popular Peruvian remedy. One cup is drunk warm or cold 3 times daily after meals to treat prostate disorders and internal inflammation, arterial hypertension, high cholesterol, cystitis, obesity, renal insufficiency, and to eliminate uric acid. This decoction is also recommended as a vaginal antiseptic and wound healer, as a wash for skin infections, and for liver and stomach disorders. Curanderos (herbal healers) in the Peruvian Amazon squeeze the juice from the fresh leaves and place it in the eye for inflammation and eye infections, and they use the juice of 12 fruits taken twice daily for 5 days to "cure" epilepsy.


    Analysis of annatto seeds indicates that they contain 40% to 45% cellulose, 3.5% to 5.5% sucrose, 0.3% to 0.9% essential oil, 3% fixed oil, 4.5% to 5.5% pigments, and 13% to 16% protein, as well as alpha- and beta-carotenoids and other constituents. Annatto oil is extracted from the seeds and is the main source of pigments named bixin and norbixin, which are classified as carotenoids. Bixin, extracted and used as a food colorant, has been shown to protect against ultraviolet rays and to have antioxidant and liver protective properties in clinical research.

    In addition to bixin and norbixin, annatto contains bixaghanene, bixein, bixol, crocetin, ellagic acid, ishwarane, isobixin, phenylalanine, salicylic acid, threonine, tomentosic acid, and tryptophan.


    Much has been done in the laboratory validating annatto's traditional uses and finding new ones. A water extract of the root has demonstrated hypotensive activity in rats, as Peruvian herbal systems have practiced. The same extract demonstrated smooth muscle-relaxant activity in guinea pigs and lowered gastric secretions in rats, which help to explain its use as a digestive aid and for stomach disorders. Annatto seed extracts have been documented to raise blood glucose levels in some species of animals and to lower it in others. Annatto leaves were reported in yet another study to possess aldose reductase inhibition actions, a process implicated in the advancement of diabetic neuropathy. A 2000 study confirmed the effectiveness of a leaf-and-bark extract at neutralizing hemorrhages in mice injected with snake venom, a practice used in Colombia for many years. Annatto demonstrated antigonorrheal activity in a 1995 study, and in other research, flower and leaf extracts demonstrated in vitro antibacterial activity against several bacteria, including E. coli and Staphylococcus. This supports its use in traditional medicine systems for gonorrhea and other types of infections.


    Although not widely available in the United States, standard decoctions of annatto leaves are taken by the half-cupful two or three times daily for prostate and urinary difficulties as well as for high cholesterol and hypertension. Ground annatto seed powder is also used in small dosages of 10-20 mg daily for high cholesterol and hypertension. Higher dosages can cause a marked increase in urination. It has been noted that some individuals are highly sensitive to annatto seed and this diuretic effect can be caused at much lower doses, even by just eating a bag of popcorn in which annatto was used as a coloring or flavoring ingredient.

    Annatto's history of use as a food coloring is well established worldwide, and current trends show that it is being used increasingly in body care products. Annatto oil is an emollient, and its high carotenoid content provides beneficial antioxidant properties. In body care products, annatto oil provides antioxidant benefits while adding a rich, sunny color to creams, lotions, and shampoos.

    Main Preparation Method: leaf infusion

    Main Actions (in order):
    antimicrobial, diuretic, digestive stimulant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol)

    Main Uses:

    1. as a topical antiseptic for ear, eye, and skin infections
    2. for digestive problems (heartburn, constipation, stomachache)
    3. for prostate and urinary infections
    4. for hypertension
    5. for high cholesterol levels
    Properties/Actions Documented by Research:
    aldose reductase inhibitor (linked to diabetic complications), antibacterial, antihemorrhagic (reduces bleeding), antivenin

    Other Properties/Actions Documented by Traditional Use:
    antacid, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol), anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, aperient (mild laxative), aphrodisiac, astringent, digestive stimulant, diuretic, febrifuge (reduces fever), hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), wound healer

    Cautions: It may potentiate medications used to treat hypertension.

    Main Preparation Method: seed maceration or capsules

    Main Actions (in order):
    antioxidant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), insect repellant, diuretic, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol)

    Main Uses:

    1. to tone, balance, and strengthen liver function and for hepatitis and liver inflammation/pain
    2. for high cholesterol
    3. for skin care and skin anti-aging (for its antioxidant and ultraviolet ray [UV]-protective effect)
    4. as a strong diuretic
    5. for high blood pressure
    Properties/Actions Documented by Research:
    antioxidant, hepatoprotective (liver protector), hyperglycemic; also used as a food-coloring agent

    Other Properties/Actions Documented by Traditional Use:
    expectorant, hypocholesterolemic (lowers cholesterol), hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), insect repellant, wound healer

    Cautions: It might raise blood sugar levels and may potentiate medications used to treat hypertension.

    Traditional Preparation: In South America, a standard leaf decoction is prepared. One-half cup amounts are taken two or three times daily with meals for various conditions. Ground annatto seed powder is also used in small dosages (of 5-20 mg daily). See Traditional Herbal Remedies Preparation Methods page if necessary for definitions.

    Contraindications:The seed extract was reported to elevate blood sugar levels in dogs, and it is therefore contraindicated for people with diabetes. A 1991 study documents an allergic reaction of one patient to bixin, the dye chemical in annatto seeds, stating it's ". . . a potential rare cause of anaphylaxis."

    Drug Interactions: None reported

    Argentina for diarrhea, fevers, heart support
    Brazil for burns, constipation, fevers, heartburn, hepatitis, malaria, stomachache, urinary insufficiency
    Columbia as an antivenin, aphrodisiac
    Cuba as an aphrodisiac
    Guatemala for gonorrhea
    Haiti for fever and as a douche and insect repellent
    Mexico for burns, constipation, digestion, dysentery, epilepsy, erysipelas, fever, gonorrhea, headache, inflammation, malaria, sore throat, tumors, urinary insufficiency, vaginitis, venereal disease, wounds, and as an aphrodisiac, astringent, and insect repellent
    Paraguay as an insecticide and insect repellent
    Peru for conjunctivitis, cystitis, dysentery, epilepsy, fevers, high cholesterol, digestion, hypertension, obesity, prostatitis, renal problems, urinary problems, urogenital infections, wounds, and as an antiseptic, aphrodisiac, astringent, and dye
    Trinidad for diabetes, dysentery, flu, jaundice, renal insufficiency, skin disease, venereal disease
    Elsewhere for blood cleansing, cancer, diabetes, dysentery, fever, kidney problems, parasites, skin disorders, to stop bleeding, and as an aphrodisiac, astringent, dye, and cosmetic


    • Dunham, N. W. et al. "A preliminary pharmacologic investigation of the roots of Bixa orellana." J. Amer. Pharm. Ass. Sci. Ed. 1960; 49: 218.
    • Morrison, E. Y., et al. "Extraction of an hyperglycaemic principle from the annatto (Bixa orellana), a medicinal plant in the West Indies." Trop. Georg. Med. 1991; 43(2): 184-88.
    • Morrison, E. Y., et al. "Toxicity of the hyperglycaemic-inducing extract of the annatto (Bixa orellana) in the dog." West Indian Med. J. 1985; 34(1): 38-42.
    • Morrison, E. Y., et al. "The effect of Bixa orellana (annatto) on blood sugar levels in the anaesthetized dog." West Indian Med. J. (March 1985).
    • Terashima, S., et al. "Studies on aldose reductase inhibitors from natural products. IV. Constituents and aldose reductase inhibitory effect of Chrysanthemum morifolium, Bixa orellana and Ipomoea batatas." Chem. Pharm. Bull. 1991; 39(12): 3346-47.
    • Otero, R., et al. "Snakebites and ethnobotany in the northwest region of Colombia. Part III: neutralization of lethal and enzymatic effects of Bothrops atrox venom." J. Ethnopharmacol. 2000; 71(3): 505-11.
    • Cáceres A., et al. "Antigonorrhoeal activity of plants used in Guatemala for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases." J. Ethnopharmacol. (October 1995).
    • George, M., et al. "Investigations on plant antibiotics. Part IV. Further search for antibiotic substances in Indian medicinal plants." Indian J. Med. Res. 1949; 37: 169-81.
    • Bressani, R., et al. "Chemical composition, amino acid content and nutritive value of the protein of the annatto seed (Bixa orellana L.)." Arch. Latinoam. Nutr. 33(2): 356-76.
    • Scita, G. "Retinoic acid and beta-carotene inhibit fibronectin synthesis and release by fibroblasts; antagonism to phorbol ester." Carcinogenesis 15 (1994): 1043-48.
    • Zhang, L. X. "Carotenoids up-regulate connexin43 gene expression independent of their provitanin A or antioxidant properties." Cancer Res. 52 (1992): 5707-12.
    • Di Mascio, P. "Carotenoids, tocopherols and thiols as biological singlet molecular oxygen quenchers." Biochem. Soc. Trans. 18 (1990): 1054-6.
    • Hirose, S. "Energized state of mitochondria as revealed by the spectral change of bound bixin." Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 152 (1972): 36-43.
    • Inada, Y. "Spectral changes of bixin upon interaction with respiring rat liver mitochondria." Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 146 (1971): 366-67.
    • Campelo, C. R. "Contribuicao ao estudo das plantas medicinais no estado de alagoas III, VII." Simposio de Plantas Medicinais do Brasil, 1-3 de Setembro, 1982, Belo Horizonte-MG, 85m.
    • Nish, W. A., et al. "Anaphylaxis to annatto dye: a case report." Ann. Allergy 1991; 66(2): 129-31.

    The above text has been printed from The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs by Leslie Taylor, copyrighted © 2005 All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, including websites, without written permission.


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    Last updated 2-11-2013