Annatto, sometimes called Roucou, is a derivative of the achiote trees of tropical regions of the Americas, used to produce a red food coloring and also as a flavoring. Its scent is described as "slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg" and flavor as "slightly sweet and peppery".
Annatto is produced from the reddish pulp which surrounds the seed of the achiote (Bixa orellana L.). It is used in many cheeses (e.g., Cheddar, Red Leicester, and Brie), margarine, butter, rice, smoked fish and custard powder.
Annatto is commonly found in Latin America and Caribbean cuisines as both a coloring agent and for flavoring. Central and South American natives use the seeds to make a body paint, and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the lipstick-tree.
In Cuba and other Caribbean islands, both fruit and tree are popularly called Bija (pronounced bee-ha) instead of Bixa.
In the Philippines, it is called "atsuete" and is used as food coloring in traditional dishes.
It is a major ingredient in the popular spice blend "Sazón" made by Goya Foods.
In the United States, annatto extract is listed as a color additive “exempt from certification” ( Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations part 73) and is commonly considered to be a natural color. The yellowish orange color is produced by the compounds bixin and norbixin, which are classified as xanthophylls, a type of carotenoid. However, unlike beta-carotene, another well-known carotenoid, they do not have the correct chemical structures to be vitamin A precursors. The more norbixin in an annatto color, the more yellow it is; a higher level of bixin gives it a more reddish shade. Unless an acid-proof version is used, it takes on a pink shade at low pH.
Annatto has been linked with many cases of food-related allergies, and is the only natural food coloring believed to cause as many allergic-type reactions as artificial food coloring. Because it is a natural colorant, companies using annatto may label their products "all natural" or "no artificial colors". However, consumers with food dye sensitivity or intolerance may wish to avoid products containing annatto.