The bright orange color of your favorite block of cheddar probably comes from annatto, an ingredient commonly used in cooking to add a warm hue to food. But this natural coloring agent isn’t just useful in making a cheese that’s more recognizable to the eye—it also packs some health benefits.
Also known as achiote, onoto, urucum or atsuete, annatto is an oil-rich tropical plant that produces brick-red seeds. The ground seeds, often referred to as achiote paste or annato powder, are common spices in Mexican, Caribbean and Filipino dishes. It’s even used to make cochinita pibil, a spicy pulled pork dish from the Yucatan, as well as Puerto Rican arroz con pollo and Filipino-style tamales (the word for it in Tagalog is ubi).
Annatto is rich in tocotrienols—natural compounds that are similar to but different from vitamin A—including bixin and norbixin, which give the plant its yellow to orange pigmentation. The chemical compound is fat-soluble and water-soluble, allowing it to be added to foods as either a coloring or seasoning. It also has some nutritional value: tocotrienols have antioxidant properties, help prevent cancer and lower cholesterol, and can support healthy eyesight.
However, it’s important to note that annatto can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Those who are sensitive may experience itching, swelling and hives when they consume it. The FDA does not list annatto as one of the eight major food allergens, but if you have a sensitivity to it, you should avoid it.