What is Achiote?
Achiote is not especially well known in the Western world, but natives of South and Central America have been using it since time immemorial for decorative and medicinal purposes.
The seeds of the plant were used to make decorative body paints and also lipstick which is why achiote is often referred to as the ‘lipstick tree’. But that is not all, for many years, it has also been valued for its medicinal benefits and used to prevent and cure a very broad range of sicknesses.
Achiote which has the scientific name Bixa orellana is native to many parts of South and Central America and the Caribbean. It is a relatively tall shrub growing to a maximum of around ten meters in height.
The tips of its branches bear clusters of beautiful pink and white flowers which resemble a rose. It also bears fruit in spiky looking pods which grow in clusters. Every one of these pods contain an abundance of seeds covered in a waxy red aril like the pomegranate seeds you are all familiar with.
When the fruit reaches maturity, the pod hardens and dries then splits apart to expose the seeds. The red color coating the seeds is because of carotenoid pigments especially a carotenoid called bixin.
The seeds and the leaves of the shrub both confer numerous medicinal benefits.
When the achiote fruit has ripened, it falls from the tree. Although the fruit is inedible, the seeds inside can be eaten. The thin red pulp surrounding the seeds have a taste resembling fresh pepper and a twist of nutmeg.
The pulp is often dried and ground before being infused into an oil concoction known as annatto. Annatto is a common ingredient used across South America to spice up the flavor of their traditional dishes.
Commercially speaking, the most common use of achiote is to make a food coloring which is made from the coating of the seeds. Although you may not be familiar with the plant, you may well have eaten it many times.
Many products with yellow and orange coloring use achiote including butters, cheeses, cakes, cereals and other snacks. The labels should tell you that your food has been colored with annatto.
Those bright yellow colors attracting manufacturers are due mainly to the high levels of bixin in the seeds. Bixins are potent natural carotenoids similar to those found in brightly colored fruit and vegetables like carrots.
Annatto is typically between 70 and 80% bixin and the brighter your annatto mixture appears, the higher the content of bixin should be. Carotenoids like bixin have various benefits notably their eye health benefits. Bixin enters the eye helping your eyes to absorb damaging UV rays which may improve your vision and protect you from cataracts and other degenerative eye conditions.
Apart from protecting the eyes, carotenoids are powerful antioxidants which can help protect the cells from damage, improve general health and prevent disease.
Studies have demonstrated that people who consume more carotenoids are less at risk of developing serious illnesses and are likely to live longer and healthier lives.
While the commercial use of achiote has tended to focus on using its seeds, the Native South Americans have also long been aware that they could also make use of the leaves to treat a variety of internal and external conditions.
The leaves possess excellent natural anti-inflammatory properties which make them an excellent remedy for the skin. They can be harvested and made into a concoction which is applied to the skin to soothe irritation, help heal wounds and prevent infection. The leaves have also been used in a vaginal wash to help treat vaginal infections.
Achiote leaves can also be ingested and ingesting the leaves gives even more medicinal benefits. That is because the achiote leaves are chock full of a compound known as tocotrienols. These are important compounds because they help limit the liver’s production of LDL cholesterol.
The so called ‘bad’ type of cholesterol is responsible for clogging up the arteries which can lead to serious illnesses like stroke or heart attack. Any natural product that can reduce your cholesterol levels is a good thing and regular consumption can reduce your risk of developing serious illness.
The achiote leaves also have anti-inflammatory and astringent properties which gives them numerous health benefits and makes them an excellent digestive aid. Teas made from achiote leaves can help alleviate many digestive problems including diarrhea and settle the stomach in general.
- You can safely drink down 3 cups every day to give your digestive system an overall boost and to calm down any symptoms.
Studies on Benefits of Achiote
While achiote is not one of the better-known herbs, that does not mean that it has not been noticed by the scientific community. Up to this point, several studies have been conducted into the medicinal value of achiote including the following.
1) Anti-inflammatory activities
A Malaysian study published in 2013 tested the anti-inflammatory activity of an aqueous extract in rats. The researchers concluded that the achiote extract inhibited histamine induced edema in rats given the extract compared to those in the control group.
They noted that achiote extract may be a potential natural treatment for inflammatory disorders. (1)
2) For Gonorrhea
A study published during the mid 1990s analyzed the effects of achiote bark on several strains of the sexually transmitted disease – gonorrhea.
The researchers found that achiote had an inhibitory effect on the development of 5 strains of gonorrhea. This study seems to back up one of the traditional South American uses of the herb as a gonorrhea treatment. (2)
3) Antioxidant properties of achiote
A Brazilian study analyzed the antioxidant properties of an achiote extract and found that it exerted strong antioxidant effects on diabetic rats. The precise mechanisms by which it works are complicated but for those of you that understand the language, you can read the abstract by clicking the link below. (3)
4) For Diabetes
Achiote has traditionally been used in several Central and South American countries as a diabetes treatment. Preliminary research shows that achiote seed extracts or annatto exhibited a glucose lowering effect or the ability to induce hyperglycemia.
One study conducted in Jamaica confirmed that achiote extract could reduce blood glucose level in fasting dogs with diabetes. Achiote seed extract also prevented glucose spikes after eating. Researchers concluded that the data may be of significance in the treatment of diabetes. (4)
5) Anticancer activity of norbixin (a pigment found in achiote)
A Brazilian study found that norbixin which is present in achiote had protective activity against DNA damage caused by UV radiation and other harmful agents. The results suggested to researchers that norbixin could neutralize free radical damage and may have application in the battle against cancer. (5)
Precautions and Side Effects
Achiote is generally regarded to be safe when applied topically or taken in food amount.
However, it may cause allergy in certain people and rare cases of anaphylaxis have been reported.
- There is insufficient data regarding its safety for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
- Achiote can reduce blood sugar levels and should not be used in the weeks leading up to surgery.
- Achiote may further reduce blood sugar in people already taking diabetic medication. Please consult your medical adviser before taking achiote.