Annatto is a shrub or small tree, native to South and Central America and the Caribbean. It was introduced in the Philippines by the Spanish and now grows in various parts of Indo-China. The tree can grow up to 10m and bears hundreds of the heart-shaped prickly pods, which contain many tiny red seeds.
Annatto is not used much in traditional Jamaican bush medicine, but it is used in other herbal healing systems for a wide variety of health conditions. In South America the leaves and roots of the annatto tree are decocted to treat asthma, colic, vomiting, nausea and to lower blood pressure.
Annatto leaves are also used to lower fevers, treat digestive and prostate disorders, cystitis and other inflammatory conditions. Annatto is also used to treat liver disorders and dysentery, to reduce cholesterol and increase urination. In South America a paste made from the seeds is taken internally to treat cassava poisoning and snake bites.
In the Philippines and other parts of Indo-China a paste of the seeds is used to treat burns, reduce scarring and blisters and various skin diseases.
Modern Research & Uses
Recent research has reported that an extract from the leaves of the annatto plant had anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial activity. In lab trials it was effective against gonorrhoea, E-Coli and staphylococcus bacteria. In one trial an annatto extract proved to be more effective than gentamycin sulfate against various microbes.
Annatto's effectiveness in treating diabetes is still controversial. Research carried out at the University of the West Indies suggested that a crude extract of annatto leaves was effective in reducing blood sugar levels. However other studies have reported that annatto can in fact raise blood sugar levels. There is some evidence that the diuretic properties in annatto leaves might be useful in early stages of hypertension, confirming one of its traditional uses.
Analysis of annatto seeds showed 4% oils (fixed & volatile), cellulose, sucrose, protein and the carotenoids: bixin and norbixin. Other plant chemicals include: crocetin; phenylalanine; ellagic acid, ishwarane, thereonine, salicylic acid and tryptophan.
Caution! Although annatto can be effective in reducing blood pressure, mainly due to its strong diuretic action, people with hypertension should not use it unless under the supervision of a qualified health professional. Until there are definitive results on the plant's effects on blood sugar levels, it is best not to use annatto if you have diabetes.
A paste made from the ground annatto seeds has been used traditionally in South America and in the Caribbean as body paint, food colouring and insect repellent.
The oil is being increasingly used in the cosmetic industry as it is emollient and anti-oxidant. It also adds a rich colour to cosmetic products ranging from soaps to creams and shampoos.
This paste is now used commercially for colouring in a wide range of industries. Annatto paste is used mainly in the food industry where it is used in a variety of foodstuffs needing yellow or orange colouring such as margarine, cheese, oils, popcorn and smoked fish. In Europe it is seen on food labels as E160b.
Annatto is used in the production of paints, lacquers and varnishes and as a natural dye for wool and other fabrics. Surprisingly, the colour paste is also used in the leisure fishing sector to colour maggots as they are said to be then more appealing to fishes.