Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Description:

Annatto, or Achiote, as it is commonly called in Latin American countries, is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters high. The pinkish-white flowers develop into a bright red, heart-shaped and exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in an orange-red pulp. Achiote produces a prolific amount of fruits: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.

Distribution:

Annatto is widespread throughout tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name ‘Bixa orellana’ does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. Some believe that the genus name is derived from the Portuguese ‘biche’, meaning ‘beak’, which may allude to the beak-shaped seedpods. Others believe it is a phonetic rendering of a Carib word for the colour red, which makes more sense. The species name is far more straightforward – it is given in honour of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally ‘discovered’ the Amazon.

The tree has a wide range of surprising uses that are mostly of local significance. Although Annatto fruits are inedible, the fruit pulp yields a bright red dye, which has a long history of use, both as body paint and as a dye for textiles or food. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus held it sacred. It was also used to make ink. Virtually all ancient Mayan scriptures were penned in annatto juice. Indigenous people still use the pulp for ‘cosmetic purposes’, as hair dye or lipstick, hence the English common name ‘Lipstick tree’. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Annato seed pods

Rigues [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient and persists even today. In fact, it is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter, and spreads, candy, and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry, however, is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.) This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods.

To process the fruits, the seed pods are washed in order to separate the pulp from the seeds, which are used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste, known as ‘Achiote Recado,’ is a popular flavouring in Yucatecan cuisine (southern Mexico). Meats are marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork, or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, which is somewhat problematic as many people appear to be highly allergic to. There are campaigns to get it banned, but the FDA considers it exempt from regulation. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used in hair-oils, shoe polish, floor polish, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical ointments as well as for textiles, wool, leather, and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. Particularly the leaves have a wide range of applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe irritable indigestion caused by excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers is said to be a useful expectorant for newborn babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is given as an anti-parasitic that can reduce pain associated with intestinal parasites. Externally the seed extract is applied as an insect repellent and to protect the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system. They increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and are thought to have anti-tumor activity. These are believed to be due to the high antioxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoids have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and are used in the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems of the tropics.

Recipes:

To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir-frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring, they are best when processed as a recado paste – see below:

Achiote Recado

‘Achiote recado’ is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico that is used to marinade meats, poultry, and fish. This recipe is based on a traditional recado recipe that utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges). As these are difficult to get this version is an improvisation.  A ready-made product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but, one can taste the difference

  • 2 tablespoons annatto seeds
  • ½ cup of water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup ancho chile powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • ½ medium-sized white onion, thickly sliced, pan-roasted until brown and soft
  • ¼ cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Makes about 2½ cups

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow, with alum mordant, yellow, ochre with copper mordant, brown, with iron mordant, orange, with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen, and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Description:

A slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, Açai is native to the seasonally inundated lowland forests of eastern South America, especially Brazil. Several stems sprout from its base and it can grow to about 15-25m high. It takes 4-5 years to mature. The roots are perfectly adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores, better known as aerial roots, although some prefer to call them aerating roots. These vertically erect, pencil-like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen as they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

 

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical, pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. In the course of a year, it produces 4-8 bunches of fruit, with yields being heaviest during the dry season, and most flowering mostly occurring during the wet season. The fruits form bunches of small, purple-black drupes, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red pulp. Bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source for rodents and birds, thus helping to spread the seeds. Thanks to its general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

 

History

Açai juice and smoothies are all the rave among health-conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it has long been a staple – it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among the indigenous people and ribereños, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’.

 

Recently its superfood properties have been hailed, and successfully marketed to the young fitness crowd. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it – like most superfoods it is said to improve everything from the tone of your skin to your sex drive and have anti-cancer properties, too. No wonder it sells like hotcakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages – mostly advertising some novel product based on the magic berry. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence that is based on actual studies, one is baffled to find – precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to mostly be marketing froth. A new food fad is born.

 

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanin, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour – the same compound that achieves this effect in Bilberries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, which does seem impressive. However, it comes in a very unstable form, which rapidly deteriorates after picking. The berries also contain protein, calcium, Vitamin B1, A, and E, as well as a good amount of calories – but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that remarkable. In the Amazon, although widely popular as a food/drink stuff, the berry has never been used medicinally.

 One of the most common ways to consume it is as a kind of porridge. The berries are soaked in water in order to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from the seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which may be mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. The mash is also frequently eaten with granola and other fruits as an energizing ‘health food’. Or, it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas.

 

The rapid nutrient deterioration is not of great concern in the Amazon, where it is eaten pretty much right from the tree. But to preserve any of its potential benefits for consumers on the other side of the planet, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which, however, is not terribly gentle and destroys some of the more fragile compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, it seems like Brazilians are reaping most of the benefit, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment, compared to the processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from the Amazon.

 But business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries, known as ‘Feira do Açai’, where more than 100 vendors sell 200,000kg of berries PER DAY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees over the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as ‘palmito‘, which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, although not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai’s cousin ‘Euterpe edulis‘ was harvested to obtain the hearts, but since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the precious ‘heart’ harvest from this species proved highly unsustainable. Euterpe oleracea, on the other hand, produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus, Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

 The species is also important as a source of palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai that plays an even greater role is unlikely to ever become a hit abroad – even though it is deemed a delicacy in the Amazon: the grubs of the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus palm beetle), which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any of the superfood markets abroad. To encourage the beetle the cut-down stumps of Açai are urinated on, which apparently creates an ideal environment for the beetle to lay its eggs. A few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae are harvested and consumed with relish.

 Some environmentalists welcome the growing popularity of Açai, as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river-dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will, in fact, be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine locations and although it occurs naturally and prolifically, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest have to be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export, or will existing soy fields be converted to Açai? Also, as yet there is little evidence that sustainable management and harvesting methods actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear-cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. There is some hope that Açai berries will eventually far outweigh the market for palm hearts, in terms of their economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

 As for the current Açai craze – it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at creating a buzz – preferably by throwing some sex into the marketing spin. The technique is not a new one. Even tobacco was once hyped and marketed along the very same lines. That particular craze had a long-lasting effect, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go – noni, mangosteen, kiwi – they all were once perceived as nutritional miracle bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of ‘youth in a bottle’? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes – wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

 

Medicinal uses:

 Constituents:

 1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. In addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a decoction of the roots is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and boosts blood production. The grated fruit rind is infused to make a wash for skin ulcers, and the seeds are crushed and prepared as an infusion for treating fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the crushed, toasted seeds is used to ally fevers, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

 

 References:

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A7a%C3%AD_palm

Rain-Tree database https://www.rain-tree.com

 Total oxidant scavenging capacities of Euterpe oleracea Mart. fruits, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 2005 , pages 53 – 64

 Farbatlas Tropenpflanzen, Andreas Bärtels, Eugen Ulmer Verlag 1996