Ground Annatto Seed or 'bixa orellana ' is the seed from the flowering tree of the Bixaceae family native to the Caribbean and Central America. It is also known as the 'lipstick tree ' providing these deeply pigmented seeds which are commonly used to dye cosmetics. When used sparingly it can mimic the coloring of saffron giving an economical alternative to the usage of the pricey spice. Annatto Seed is the chief coloring agent in yellow butter and gives Muenster cheese its distinctive red edge.
In addition to its coloring abilities the seed has a mild peppery flavor for which it is most notably used as the main ingredient in achiote paste a flavoring and coloring agent most widely used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines. In the Philippines Annatto Seed is known as 'atsuete ' and is used as a food coloring and many traditional dishes. It is also gaining popularity as a natural food coloring all over the globe. Annatto Seed was probably not initially used as a food additive but for medicinal purposes including treatment of heartburn and stomach upset and as a sunscreen and insect repellant. It was also used for body painting and in religious rituals to ward off evil spirits. In modern India annatto is known as 'sindoor ' and application to the forehead near the hairline indicates that a woman is married.
Annatto Seed is a rich source of antioxidants called tocotrienols which are similar in structure to vitamin E and are thought to help prevent cancer.