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Achiote or onoto (Bixa orellana): indigenous “Seed of Fire”

March 15, 2020

Annatto, onoto, annatto, urucú or bija ( Bixa orellana ) is a shrub native to tropical America, specifically the Amazon.

In addition to being used as a colorant both in the preparation of typical dishes and in indigenous rituals, it is also one of the most popular medicinal plants in the Amazon region.

Flower_and_Fruit_of_Onoto_(Bixa_orellana) low
Flower and fruit of onoto ( Bixa orellana ) Source: Dqjt28 / CC BY-SA

✅ Description of the achiote plant

It is a perennial plant with heart-shaped leaves , ephemeral pink or white flowers, and prickly ovoid fruit.

The fruit has different colors ranging from green, through yellowish tones to red when ripe. Inside it has triangular shaped seeds , with red pigmentation on their skin, which are expelled when the fruit reaches maturity.

Each capsule of the fruit can contain between 30 and 45 seeds.

Achiote or urucu Source: Grupo Colombio / CC BY-SA

The achiote or onoto bush is fast growing, reaches an average of 4 to 6 meters in height and is quite robust in appearance.

Based on the color of the flowers, two species of achiote can be distinguished. The seeds of plants with white flowers provide more reddish coloration, and the seeds of plants with red flowers provide less pigment.

✅ Other names of achiote or onoto

It is also known by the names of achiotl, urucú, bija; bijol, rocú, rocon, axiote, bijo, achiotillo, analto, annatto; bizo, anoto, abujo, yellow achiote; bija achiote, cholo achiote, mountain achiote, red pepa achiote and onoto.

Etymology of the word achiote

The word achiote comes from the Nahuatl language (Aztec language), which translates as seed of fire or seed that shines.

Its scientific name Bixa orellana derives from the last name of the explorer Francisco de Orellana.

Origin of the name Rocco

In the days of the Spanish colonization in America, the seeds of the achiote or annatto were brought to Europe by the French explorer Rochefort around the year 1659.

They called it Rocou back then, and used it to dye a variety of products ranging from textiles to food.

✅ Pre-Hispanic use of achiote

Although today its use is daily in different parts of the world and is part of the global gastronomic culture, the native indigenous people of America used achiote, annato, onoto or bija widely before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.

achiote indigenous dye
An Asháninka woman wearing makeup according to the ancestral designs and customs of this ethnic group that is proud of its culture. Source: Asier Solana Bermejo Taken on September 18, 2011 Some rights reserved

In the Spanish chronicles, the application of achiote among the Mayans is recorded, who enjoyed consuming it and mixing it with cocoa .

In the archaeological site of Caral, located in the city of Casma, in Peru, evidence of the use of achiote or onoto as a narcotic has been found. The inhabitants of the pre-Inca Caral culture (considered the oldest in America) prepared a mixture that included achiote, lime and coca from around 3000 years BC.

For their part, the Incas of upper Peru used achiote leaves as a powerful natural medicine , for the treatment and cure of different ailments or diseases since long before the conquest.

✅ Annatto properties and its benefits

Annatto brings with it a variety of incredible properties, not only in the gastronomic field but also as health benefits; in addition, of a series of nutrients that positively act in our organisms.

The nutritional contribution of achiote can be measured, for example, in a fraction of 100 grams, this portion will provide proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber, being considered important source of vitamin A and carotenoids, which are regulators of blood sugar levels, likewise, it acts as an anti-inflammatory and healing agent.

In this sense, it is rich in calcium which keeps bones healthy, among other uses.

From a therapeutic perspective, it is used as an expectorant and fluidizer in respiratory processes, given its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial content, therefore, it is considered essential for the natural treatment of flu, cough and other symptoms of the respiratory tract.

Also, it has astringent properties, this is evidenced in its cosmetic uses to improve the appearance of the skin, as an exfoliant and moisturizer.

Annatto to cure cancer (prostate)

It also provides a large amount of antioxidants and has been attributed anticancer properties or in the prevention of this disease, both in the liver, prostate and oropharyngeal area.

It also highlights its properties in the prevention of diabetes .

Annatto aphrodisiac

Additionally, since ancient times, aphrodisiac properties have been attributed to it, as a powerful libido stimulant, for both men and women.

✅ Culinary uses of achiote

These seeds are more commonly used in the kitchen, not only for their pigmenting properties that provide a pleasant coloration to most foods, but also for their good flavor that enhances the most demanding culinary preparations.

Particularly in cooking, achiote is part of the culinary avant-garde in the context of South America, Central America and other latitudes, being used as a coloring additive for different and grandiose preparations and recipes.

Products with achiote, bija, annatto or onoto

Currently, processed onoto is sold in different presentations such as:

  • Onoto powder;
  • Liquid Annatto;
  • Annatto paste;
  • Bija in spiced bars;
  • Achiote or urucú in oils;
  • Onoto, bija or achiote in whole or chopped seeds.
achiote paste product
Achiote (annatto seed paste) was, to me, associated with Peruvian cuisine, but Juan pointed out that it is also used in Mexican cuisine. He used it with OJ as a marinade for pulled pork in a dish called Carne al Pastor. Recipe Source: Leslie Seaton ( CCbySA2.0 )

Today, in the Latin American context, its use is extremely common in kitchens from the humblest to the kitchens of large tourist centers and world-famous restaurants.

Also, it is combined with different dairy derivatives such as cheeses, where we find cheddar, munster cheese, as well as in margarines and butters.

On the other hand, it is used in a variety of traditional stews, fish and smoked meat, and is also used in traditional techniques for smoking and cooking food underground, mainly meat and seafood.

Achiote in Mexican cuisine

A widely known example is the preparation of pibil dishes (derived from the Mayan word pib), which consists of a dish where the meat is seasoned with achiote and is cooked wrapped in banana leaves under the ground. La cochinita Pibil , a dish of Mexican gastronomy that is widely spread internationally.

the ingredients of an achiote paste
The ingredients of an achiote paste. Source: Paul Goyette Taken on February 17, 2006 Some rights reserved

Achiote in Amazon cuisine

Another typical dish from the Amazon, where achiote is used, is the fish and capybara pisillo .

Likewise, it is used in a variety of rice-based dishes, such is the case of rice with meat; and, rice with seafood, since, without a doubt, it is a much cheaper spice than saffron, which is also used for coloring and seasoning food.

Indeed, the bollitos pelones are another dish where the achiote is the protagonist, this is used in its ground form to give flavor and color to the meat with which the buns made of precooked or fresh corn flour are going to be filled, which are cooked in chicken or chicken broth also seasoned and colored with achiote.

The onoto in Venezuelan cuisine

Other preparations in which it is used correspond to fried arepitas with pork rinds and achiote or onoto.

In the gastronomy of the east of Venezuela they use the onoto in the oriental curd. The Orientals add the pigment to this type of fish cake to give color, firstly to the base stew, and secondly to the cover.

Additionally, it is traditionally used for the famous Venezuelan hallacas or hayacas, as well as the tamales of Colombia; Peru; and, Ecuador, since the dough that contains the meat filling previously seasoned with achiote, this precisely serves to give the characteristic yellow coloration to the dough.

In this same context, achiote also has a special role in the preparation of:

  • Chinchano-style carapulcra
  • shredded meat;
  • The chicken hallaquitas;
  • Gallo pinto rice;
  • The macaronade;
  • Pork leg with achiote;
  • The barangueña-style goat straw;
  • The Venezuelan Guayan pelao;
  • Seafood stew;
  • The Barranquillan hallaca with a Spanish flavor;

Among other delicious and emblematic recipes throughout the American territory, which have great cultural value and guarantee the survival of achiote over time for a long time.

Bija in Colombian cuisine

In addition to this, in contemporary Colombian cuisine as well as in Venezuelan cuisine, bija or achiote is used in countless dishes and preparations such as sancochos; stews; Tamales; rice; sausages; among others. On the Caribbean coast, it is an essential ingredient for local dishes.

In Latin America, achiote, bija, onoto or annato represent one of the ingredients that should not be missing in different local preparations, as is the case of the Venezuelan hallaca, in Mexico the cochinita pibil and in the case of Peru the polloda and the locro. .

✅ Medicinal importance of achiote

As discussed above, achiote is not only a spice for cooking, but it also has important properties in the area of health, since it is considered a relevant element for the treatment of various conditions and diseases.

In this sense, achiote for medicinal purposes can be consumed in various ways, such as:

  • The infusion of the seeds and its leaves is used against headaches (mild to moderate).
  • It is also a powerful adjuvant in the healing and burn processes.
  • In the same way, in infusion it is used for the elimination of fungi and infections of the genito-urinary system, being applied in washes and baths.
  • Likewise, it is a great relief in rashes due to measles and smallpox .
  • The use of the bark of the achiote bush, prepared by boiling or in infusion, is an excellent therapy in infectious processes of the throat, larynx and pharynx.
  • Among other benefits, achiote provides better digestion given its fiber content.
  • It also improves the appearance of the skin because it contains large amounts of antioxidants that prevent premature aging of the skin.
  • It also helps reduce negative cholesterol levels in the blood; promotes urination, since it has diuretic properties; in other medicinal uses, the seeds are made into a laxative that works sparingly.
  • Finally, recent studies have revealed that achiote has an action that counteracts the effects of poisonous snakes , which makes it very evident that over time, achiote can surprise us with novel properties in different contexts.

⚠️ Side effects and contraindications ⚠️

There are some contraindications and adverse reactions that are associated with the misuse of achiote, which must be taken into account in order to avoid unwanted effects.

For example, its excessive consumption by pregnant women is contraindicated because it has abortifacient properties .

In the same way, those who are close to undergoing some type of surgery or operation should refrain from consuming achiote , since blood glucose levels could be compromised.

On the other hand, people who are allergic to achiote may present hives, dermatitis and in severe cases anaphylactic shock.

Likewise, pathological patients with kidney failure should totally avoid its consumption and, for hypertensive patients, its consumption is contraindicated.

✅ How to grow achiote ?

As has been expressed, achiote is a spice adapted to tropical climates and warm regions, usually, its flowering and maturation periods are variable depending on the characteristics of the areas where it is cultivated.

The Bixa orellana plant grows and develops best in sandy soil .

To plant it, the achiote seed must be covered with a thin layer of soil and compost, and the soil must be kept moist.

These seeds will germinate on average in four to six weeks .

After about three years the plant will bear fruit to extract this magnificent seed.

✅ Annatto in the indigenous culture of the Amazon

At the time of the Spanish colonization and evangelization in America, its use was prohibited because achiote was considered a pagan element associated with the magic and mystical beliefs of the indigenous people.

For the evangelizers, achiote was a heresy and therefore its use, cultivation and propagation should be prohibited.

The indigenous people used the achiote pigment as a protector on their bare skins, as an adjuvant against the inclement environmental and wild conditions in many cases of the territories they occupied.

With its use, they more successfully resisted life in the jungle , since they knew that this plant was an efficient healer of cuts, scratches, wounds and an excellent mosquito repellent .

The achiote applied to the body also had a link connotation between an earthly and spiritual state.

They did not consider it as a simple seed or bush, but as a relevant pigment for religious and mystical rituals.

That is to say, it was a seed and therefore a sacred tree granted by the gods themselves as the essence of plant blood, which endowed them with wisdom, health and a perfect balance between the earthly and magical.

For Ulloa (1992), this painting was related to one of the most important manifestations of indigenous culture .

It was used in traditional dances, parties and was in accordance with the social role, also being used as a seduction tool and to fall in love .

In the Colombian , Brazilian and Ecuadorian Amazon, this tradition has survived in history as intangible heritage.

✅ Legends of Annatto

The achiote does not escape mysticism and is itself the subject of indigenous legends that in turn constitute a communicative element for the natives of the Amazon.

▷ The arrowhead cured by the achiote

Among these legendary stories is the legend of the arrow shooter, which tells the story of a hunter who did not hunt out of hunger but out of ambition.

One day the gods cooked his mouth, since he left the prey of his hunt thrown away.

His wise grandfather, observing that he was dying of hunger, decided to cure him with achiote under the promise that when he hunted he would do it out of hunger and not out of ambition, with the achiote he was cured and kept his promise.

▷ Buynama or the man of water

The legend of Buynama or the man of water, narrates that human beings are born from the seeds of the achiote bush and through these they have populated the earth.

For Castillo & Uhía (2009), it is emphasized that when the first achiote seeds were planted on earth, human beings began to appear and the gods wondered who would have been responsible for this.

▷ The guardians of the jungle

Another legend is that of the Achiote and the Huito, which according to Flores (2010), tells the story of two beautiful women who traveled through the jungle looking for a boyfriend. In that adventure they met a captivating character, but an evil hunter caught them to make them his wives.

After being deceived, they asked the spirit of the jungle to turn them into useful plants, and the great spirit agreed to transform them. He turned one with reddish hair into the shape of an achiote tree, and another, with black hair, into a Wituk tree.

Both plants still exist in the Amazon; As time passed and thanks to a rainbow, two young women with exceptional beauty appeared in the Amazon who were considered the guardians of the jungle.


  • Castillo, A. & Uhia, A (2009). Colombian Myths and Legends. Colombia, Educate. PDF
  • Flowers, A. (2010). Tales and Legends of the Amazon. Culture Core. Pasta. Source
  • Rodriguez, P. (1983). Plants of Venezuelan popular medicine for sale in herbalists. Caracas, Editorial Sucre. Venezuelan Society of Natural Sciences. PDF
  • Ulloa, A. (1992). Characterizations of the indigenous peoples in Colombia. Colombia, Ministry of Culture. PDF

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