Annatto is a red-orange natural food dye and mild seasoning found in dishes from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. It’s often used as an alternative to artificial coloring compounds that may be linked to health issues like obesity and cancer, reports Healthline. It’s also chock-full of plant compounds known as carotenoids that may improve eye health. One carotenoid in particular, norbixin, has been shown to reduce the accumulation of a harmful molecule called N-retinylidene-N-retinylethanolamine in the retina.
It’s not suitable for everyone, though. A few cases have been reported of annatto triggering atopic dermatitis (itchy skin) and food intolerances. It’s also not recommended for children under 2.
As an ingredient, annatto seeds are hard and unpleasant to chew whole, so they’re typically ground or used to infuse oils. They have a peppery, nutty flavor and aroma that complements smokey flavors and other spices like paprika, cumin, turmeric, garlic, and saffron. It’s not ideal as a stand-alone spice, but it works well in blends and within other bitter foods.
While annatto is a safe choice for most people, it’s best to add new ingredients slowly to your diet and build up your tolerance to it over time. It can trigger intolerances and allergies in some people, so it’s important to check the label of products containing it for warnings. It’s also best for people with irritable bowel syndrome to avoid it as it can aggravate symptoms.