Health benefits of Achiote (Bixa orellana)



Annatto or Achiote (Bixa orellana), is a shrub native to tropical areas of America which names derives from the name given to this shrub in the Aztecan dialect Nahuatl.

Achiote is mainly known for being the source of the Annatto, also known as roucou, a carotenoid based food colorant used very broadly, specially in the United States, where its commercialization doesn't required certification due to the fact that it is considered a natural colorant [3,4]. The main carotenoid detected in annatto seeds is bixin [6], a carotenoid soluble in fats but not in water. Image: Bixa by Malcolm Manners under Creative Common license (CC BY 2.0).


Family: Bixaceae

Genus: Bixa

Common names: Achiote, Annato, Aploppas



Carotenoids are organic pigments naturally occurring in plants and photosynthetic organisms as algae, known to exert several positive biological effects [6], and in charge of the blue light absorption in plants and vegetables [5]. Until know we have been able to identify about 600 carotenoids identified in nature and they are divided in two main groups, the xanthophylls, containing oxygen and the carotenes, hydrocarbons that do not contain oxygen [5].



Food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries are very interested in Achiote. In spite many other synthetic dyes (as erythrosine, ponceau and tartrazina) are available and ready to be used, Achiote is one of the natural colorants (as well as paprika, curcuma and anthocyanin) which use has been considered safer for human consumption then synthetic dyes [6], as well as economically advantageous for these industries. The image on the right shows the so-called "caldo de achiote", or Achiote paste, the extract of the Achiote seeds used in culinary preparations and recipes.


But what gives Achiote this colorant properties?

Carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases (CCDs) are a class of enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of a broad diversity of secondary metabolites known as apocarotenoids [13], a type of organic compounds which widely occur in living organisms as Bixa Orellana [14]. Examples of apocarotenoids include vitamin A retinoids retinal, retinoic acid, retinol; and last but not least the plant hormone abscisic acid [14].

Abscisic acid is a phytohormone or plant hormone discovery in the early 1960's [15], that plays a very important role in the development of new drugs for the treatment of inflammatory and immune-mediated diseases as influenza. Abscisic acid owns its name to its role in the abscission of plant leaves, but plays a very important role in many other plant developmental processes [16] as for example inhibition of fruit ripening and also the source of new drugs against inflammatory diseases as influenza.


Bixa orellana is the main source of the natural pigment annatto or bixin, an apocarotenoid similar to the above-mentioned ones accumulated in large quantities in its seeds, in both immature and mature seeds [13]. This apocarotenoid is responsible for its coloring properties and somehow also some of the health benefits of Annato. Image: Caldo de achiote by Gato Azul under Creative Common license (CC BY 2.0).



Additionally to the already known health benefits exerted by carotenoids, a bioactive sesquiterpene from Achiote exhibited moderate antifungal activity against Candida albicans, low activity against T. mentagrophytes, and low antibacterial activity against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and P. aeruginosa. It was inactive against B. subtilis and A. niger [7].



In developing countries and particularly in Colombia, people with low income and less access to modern medicine resources such as farmers, those living in small isolate villages and native communities, use folk medicine and natural remedies for the treatment of common infections. Achiote is also among those herbs used in Colombian folk medicine to treat infections of microbial origin, mainly for the treatment of:

  • pharyngitis, 
  • gingivitis,
  • bronchitis,
  • infected wounds,
  • topical ulcers, and as
  • anti-parasitic agents [8].

Extracts of the leaves of Achiote (Bixa orellana) possesses antimicrobial activity against gram positive microorganisms and Candida albicans [8,9]. Achiote leaves have been employed to treat malaria and Leishmaniasis[8,10]. Its seeds contain carotenoids. The leave extracts of Achiote (Bixa orellana) showed also maximum activity against Bacillus pumilus [11].



In Trinidad and Tobago, the inside of the pods of Bixa orellana, leaves of Cordia curassavica and Eclipta alba plant tops are used for skin diseases in dogs [12]. And for those of you who are still wondering what is achiote in English, achiote in English is Annatto.


[1] An evidence-based systematic review of annatto (Bixa orellana L.) by the natural standard research collaboration. Ulbricht C, Windsor RC, Brigham A, Bryan JK, Conquer J, Costa D, Giese N, Guilford J, Higdon ER, Holmes K, Isaac R, Jingst S, Kats J, Peery L, Rusie E, Savinainen A, Schoen T, Stock T, Tanguay-Colucci S, Weissner W. Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.
[2] Plant names: Porcher Michel H. et al. 1995 - 2020, Sorting Bixa Names. Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database (M.M.P.N.D) - A Work in Progress. School of Agriculture and Food Systems. Faculty of Land & Food Resources. The University of Melbourne. Australia. < > [3,4] Wikipedia articles on Annatto and Bixa orellana
[7] Optical characterization in annatto and commercial colorific. Dias VM, Pilla V, Alves LP, Oliveira HP, Munin E. Universidade do Vale do Paraíba-UNIVAP, São José dos Campos, SP, Brazil.
[5] Wikipedia article on Carotenoids under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
[6] Carotenoid content of commonly consumed herbs and assessment of their bioaccessibility using an in vitro digestion model. Daly T, Jiwan MA, O'Brien NM, Aherne SA. Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
[7] A bioactive sesquiterpene from Bixa orellana. Raga DD, Espiritu RA, Shen CC, Ragasa CY. Biology Department
[8] Screening for antimicrobial activity of ten medicinal plants used in Colombian folkloric medicine: A possible alternative in the treatment of non-nosocomial infections Jhon J Rojas,#1 Veronica J Ochoa,#1 Saul A Ocampo,#1 and John F Muñoz#1
[9] Fleischer TC, Ameade EPK, Mensah MLK, Sawer IK. Antimicrobial activity of the leaves and seeds of Bixa orellana. Fitoterapia. 2003;74:136–38. doi: 10.1016/S0367-326X(02)00289-7.
[10] Irobi ON, Moo-Young M, Anderson WA. In vitro clonal propagation of annatto (Bixa orellana L.) Pharm Biol. 1996;34:87. [11] Antimicrobial activity of crude extracts from plant parts and corresponding calli of Bixa orellana L. Castello MC, Phatak A, Chandra N, Sharon M. Birla College of Arts, Science & Commerce, Kalyan 421 304, India.
[12] Medicinal plants used for dogs in Trinidad and Tobago. Lans C, Harper T, Georges K, Bridgewater E. Faculty of Medical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of the West Indies, Mt. Hope, Trinidad and Tobago.
[13] Identification and expression pattern of a new carotenoid cleavage dioxygenase gene member from Bixa orellana N. L. Rodríguez-Ávila,1 J. A. Narváez-Zapata,2 J. E. Ramírez-Benítez,1 M. L. Aguilar-Espinosa,1 and R. Rivera-Madrid1.
[14] Wikipedia article on Apocarotenoids under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
[15] Mechanisms of action and medicinal applications of abscisic Acid. Bassaganya-Riera J, Skoneczka J, Kingston DG, Krishnan A, Misyak SA, Guri AJ, Pereira A, Carter AB, Minorsky P, Tumarkin R, Hontecillas R. Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Nutrition Group, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.
[16] Wikipedia article on abscisic acid under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.