Annatto is a natural food coloring that has been used since ancient times to produce a range of safe, nontoxic food colors ranging from clear yellow to deep orange-red. It is harvested from the fruit and seeds of the annatto tree, which is a small tree with beautiful flowers, native to the Americas. As a natural colorant derived from the seeds within the annatto fruit, it is frequently chosen for use in all-natural foodstuffs that contain no artificial colors or flavors. A familiar food that has been colored with annatto is cheddar cheese. Its rich golden-orange color has been created with annatto color since the 1800’s.
But what exactly is annatto food coloring? Most everyone has heard of carotenoids – those natural organic pigments that give carrots their orange hue and nutritional punch. Carotenoids are also responsible for the yellow, golden, and rust tones contained in annatto seeds. These all-natural food colors result from drying and extracting the carotenoids bixin and norbixen from the seeds within the fruit of the annatto tree. Bixin and norbixen are both natural compounds, and are each used in coloring different types of foods. Many delicious Caribbean and Mexican dishes feature a concentrated paste from annatto seeds, called achiote paste, and it’s impossible to create authentic Yucatan cuisine without it.
Some may wonder why even a natural food color would be added to foods, but a quick look at history and worldwide culture reveals that presentation, appearance, and color have long played an important role in preparing and serving food. Meals are about more than just sustenance: They represent holidays, traditions, expectations, and even affection. Eye-appeal is an important part of the entire process. Through the use of annatto extract, foods can be made attractive shades of yellow and deep orange, and every color in-between – naturally.
But annatto’s carotenoids are more than just “pretty.” They are powerful antioxidants, compounds believed by scientists and medical researchers to aid in combating a variety of ills caused by free radicals and toxins, both of which occur naturally as byproducts of human metabolism. Antioxidants are believed to support heart health and to combat carcinogens.
Annatto coloring is used in more than just cheese. If you’ve had an orange snowcone, a smoothie, onion dip, ice-cream, sausage, fried chicken, a layer cake, or buttered toast, then you’ve likely already sampled how annatto enriches the appearance of foods. Its status as a natural product, along with the attractive color it adds, makes it a favorite with cooks and consumers. Along with tumeric, it is very popular as an alternative to another natural but prohibitively expensive famed yellow colorant, saffron, and is added to festive rice dishes featuring a bright yellow hue.
With its rich color and rich history, annatto color is an excellent choice for those who value natural, wholesome foods created with beautiful, traditional recipes and only all-natural ingredients.