Achiote: Red-Orange Spice From Mexican Annato Seeds

achiote seeds and paste
Achiote is a bright red-orange colorant and spice made from the annatto seeds of the Bixa Orellana tree. While the seeds are common in Mexican cuisine, a paste-like condiment is more readily available worldwide. Achiote paste includes annatto seeds with a combination of earthy spices and aromatic herbs like cumin, oregano, coriander, cloves, and some tasty garlic.

What Is Achiote?

Achiote is another name for annatto seeds, the small, bright red seeds from the achiote tree, Bixa Orellana, found in the tropical regions in Mexico and Central and South America.

achiote annatto seeds

Achiote has a distinct, slightly earthy flavor, mostly used as a food condiment or colorant. The seeds are dried and ground, producing a red-orange powder used in sweet and savory dishes. It’s a popular ingredient in Latin American cuisine.

The seeds are mostly used as food colors or spices and have a slightly peppery flavor. Besides its culinary uses, achiote also has medicinal properties. It has been used for millennia to treat various skin and digestive disorders. Now, scientific research is starting to explore the potential health benefits of achiote, including its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

To prepare achiote paste, gather the ingredients and grind the annatto, oregano, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and cloves with a mortar and pestle or a spice mill. Mix the ground spices with garlic, bitter orange juice, and salt in a blender and process the mixture until smooth.

To make achiote oil, simply infuse a light oil of your choice with achiote powder and strain. This preparation is primarily used as a colorant.

Other Names For Achiote

Achiote is commonly used in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, Mexico, and Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean.

Roucou is often used in Guadalupe, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Annato is commonly used in North American and certain Caribbean islands and other regions of South America.

Urucul is used by the Tupi-Gurani Indians of the Amazon.

Achuete is commonly used in the Philippines.

Is Achiote Spicy?

Achiote is not spicy. It has a fairly mild flavor that is slightly peppery and earthy in its original form. It takes on a more savory and herbaceous flavor when the herbs and spices are added to make a paste.

While it’s not traditional, you can add dried chili peppers to your own achiote paste recipe for heat and smokiness. Good ones to try include:

What Does Achiote Taste Like?

Achiote comes in three forms: powder, paste, and oil. The powder and oil have little flavor and are primarily used as a colorant. The paste includes herbs, spices, and aromatics, giving it a sweet, earthy, and nutty flavor.

How Does Achiote Have A Bright Orange Color?

Annatto is mainly used as a condiment and food coloring agent due to its bright orange color. This vibrant orange color comes from the compounds in the seeds known as carotenoids.

Carotenoids are the pigments found in the seed’s outer layer and various vegetables and fruits like carrots and tomatoes.

What Is Achiote Used For?

Annatto has been used for ages for cooking and as a colorant and natural health remedy.

Traditionally, it was used for treating health issues such as diarrhea, skin problems, ulcers, and heartburn, and as an insect repellant, sunscreen, and for body painting.

Today, annatto is primarily used as a flavoring and natural food coloring agent. Annatto is a natural additive in many manufactured foods like butter, cheese, cakes, custards, and baked products. In cooking, it is used as a condiment, marinade in pork, meat, and in stews and soups, as well as in tamales and the popular cochinita pibil (Yucatán barbecued pork) from Mexico.

Cochinita Pibil, Mexican pit-roasted pork dish
Cochinita Pibil, Mexican pit-roasted pork dish.

It has become a natural substitute for synthetic food coloring in big brands, such as the famous mac-n-cheese in the blue box. Health food brands have long used annato in place of synthetic food dyes like red 40 and yellow 5.

Unlike artificial food colorings, achiote also offers antioxidants and other health benefits.

Where To Buy Achiote

You can purchase annatto seeds online on Amazon or eBay, or in Latin grocery stores. Achiote powder and paste are widely available in most grocery stores under the Badia or Orale brand.

Substitutes For Achiote

If you cannot find achiote, you can combine equal parts of turmeric and sweet paprika.

Turmeric will give you a yellow-orange color and an earthy, nutty flavor, and paprika offers a spicy sweetness and red color.

Other alternatives to achiote paste include:

Harissa: a combination of coriander, chilies, garlic, and caraway seeds.

Sambal Olek: This is a chili paste from Indonesia and is a mixture of salt, sugar, vinegar, and red chilies.

Your paste: Mix a tablespoon of annatto seeds and three tablespoons of lard with cumin and lime juice.

Cumin and Cayenne Pepper: Cumin is an ideal substitute, but you can add cayenne pepper for additional heat and red color

Guajillo chili powder: Made from ground guajillo chilies.

Unique Uses For Achiote

Although commonly used in food coloring and cooking, achiote also has unique uses.

The Taino people of the Caribbean used it as a fabric dye, body paint, cosmetic, insect repellent, and sunscreen long before the Europeans arrived. It also has potential health benefits that include:

  • Antioxidant properties
  • Antimicrobial properties
  • It might have anticancer properties
  • It may promote eye health
  • It may improve heart health
  • May reduce inflammation


Tabitha's passion for gardening didn't begin until she was in her twenties. She was always interested in plants, but it wasn't until she moved to a rural setting that she realized how much fun it could be. Peppers are part of her edible landscape, and she is constantly looking for new and interesting varieties to try. When she is not gardening, she spends her time reading and writing.

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