Annatto extract comes from tropical regions in mostly central and south America where the Achiote tree grows. When annatto extract is harvested from the trees it produces a food coloring that is red and has a flavor that is peppery with a glimmer of nutmeg. The red pulp that encompasses the Annatto seeds is used in custard powder, butter, rice, and certain cheeses like Red Leicester, Brie, and Cheddar.
Flavor & Coloring
The annatto extract, popular in Latino and Caribbean food for flavoring, is also used for body paint as well as lipstick. The heart shaped fruit has grown in popularity in Asia, India, Malaysia, as well as in the Philippines. The fruit when opened shows a dark red annatto seed whose covering is used as a commercial food dye throughout third world countries. The annatto extract that is made into dye is prepared by mixing the seeds into water or sometimes oil is used. The fruit itself cannot be eaten.
Initially annatto extract was used for body paint in ancient Aztec ceremonies to rid the tribes of evil spirits and was also a great repellent for bugs of any and all kinds. The Aztecs used the red extract for their paintings in the 15 and 16 centuries. The extract was only used later, especially in Jamaica, for flavoring, sunscreen, upset stomachs, and insect repellent. Countries like the Philippines, the Caribbean islands, Venezuela, Honduras, and most of Brazil use it mostly to flavor and color their indigenous foods to the delight of their diverse populations.
Annatto extract in the United States is considered a color additive and a natural coloring that has become released from certification. Cheese makers in early America found that they could sell their wares if their cheeses had a warm look thus the addition of annatto extract to give it that colorful flair like we have in Cheddar. Apparently the sales were better when the orange color of annatto extract was used. The coloring was used in the cheaper cheeses to fetch a higher price. In the chemical makeup the more norbixin in the color of annatto the yellower it is. A high level of norbixin will give it a more red shade.
Annatto extract when used as a food coloring has been linked to allergies that are apparently coloring related. It is possible this is the only natural food coloring that is linked to food allergies that cause these type of reactions in humans. In 1860 cheese lovers of London say a report that stated Londoners liked the adulterated cheeses better even though it caused many minor allergies after consumption. The British preferred the warmer colors because it was thought to contain higher fats that lent to more nutrition. The sales for the warmer colors always exceeded the paler, yellower cheeses.