scientific name: Віха orellana
other common names: Achiote, Onoto, Achiotl
growing areas: Central and South America, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean
physical description: It is a shrub or small tree that can grow up to 30 feet tall. It is known for producing fruits covered with soft, red bristles that open when ripe to release seeds. The seeds are coated with a vermilion-colored oil. When crushed, the seeds make a red paste that is used as a food coloring and cloth dye. It also provides pigment for paints. In Belize, annatto is used to color rice red. Amazon tribes are also reported to use it for body paint and as protection from insects.
traditional uses: Tribes in the Amazon area have used annatto as an aphrodisiac and astringent. In Brazil and Mexico it has been used as a diuretic, astringent, and purgative. It has also been used by some indigenous peoples of South America for diarrhea and dysentery. In Caribbean areas it has been used for diabetes, as a tea for removing intestinal worms, and for making a bath. Ethnobotanists also report that ingestion of the seeds of annatto has served as an antidote for certain plant poisons in Venezuela, the Amazon, and Yucatan. The pulp surrounding the seeds is used as a dye and flavoring substance.
availability and dosage: The powdered leaf of annatto is available in tablet or capsule form. The seeds are also sold by the pound and ounce. Some herbalists recommend taking a half cup of a decoction up to three times a day.
contraindications: None found.
special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
Some people have reported allergic reaction to the annatto seed, as well as a strong diuretic effect.
medical research: There do not appear to be any clinical trials or other research on humans involving annatto. Low blood sugar has been found in dogs that have been fed extracts from the plant seeds, which may explain why some Caribbean cultures have used annatto to treat diabetic conditions. Dr. Michael Balick, a botanist with the New York Botanical Garden, has reported that in vitro testing has shown how dried ethyl alcohol extracts of the dried fruit of annatto, as well as the leaf, had an effect against two forms of bacteria troublesome to humans: Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Both kinds of bacteria can cause gastrointestinal distress in humans. Balick also reported that an extract from the root of annatto was shown to have a smooth muscle relaxant effect on guinea pigs.