What Are Annatto Seeds?

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Annatto seeds are known for their sweet and peppery flavor, but what really sets them apart is the brilliant yellow-orange hue they give to the dishes that use them. Learn all about annatto seeds and how to use them to cook up the most delicious meals at home.

Where Do Annatto Seeds Come From?

Annatto seeds come from the fruit of the achiote tree, which was originally grown in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean Islands. Over the last several hundred years, people in those areas have used it as a dye, a medicine, and a spice.

Annatto seeds are also known as achiote in Mexico, the names are interchangeable.

What Do They Taste Like?

Most people describe the taste of annatto seeds as sweet and peppery. Their flavor also has a floral earthiness to it, and the aftertaste is slightly nutty. Some people compare it to a milder version of paprika.

While these things make annatto a pretty popular spice, it’s actually used as much for its color as its flavor. A special chemical found in annatto is what gives many yellow kinds of cheese their bright hue. Annatto also comes into play as a dye in some popular snack foods like Cheez-Its and Goldfish crackers.

Annatto Seeds stacked on top of each other.

Are Annatto Seeds Healthy?

In the annatto seed, you can find some key vitamins and minerals that offer many health benefits. This seed contains high levels of Vitamin E, along with minerals like calcium and iron. They also have important antioxidants that help protect our cells from damage. Annatto seeds can aid in digestion, help us keep our bones strong and healthy, and even work to manage our blood sugar levels.

Where to Buy Them

If you live near a Mexican or Latin American market, then you’re in luck. You can probably find annatto powder, paste, oil and extract right down the road. Otherwise, this tropical spice might be a little bit harder to come by. Try shops dedicated to selling spices, and if that fails, you can always turn to the internet: Whole Annatto Seeds, Ground Annatto, Achiote Paste, and Achiote Oil.

A bowl with Annatto Seeds and a few spilling out the sides.

Storage Instructions

Like most other spices, powdered achiote does best when kept in a cool, dark and dry place. Try storing it in the pantry, a cupboard or your spice drawer. If you keep it tightly sealed, it should last up to 3 years.

Before you crack open achiote oil or paste, go ahead and keep them under similar conditions to the powder. But once you break the seal, they do best in the refrigerator. The paste keeps in there for about 3 months, while the oil lasts closer to 2 weeks.

A bowl filled with crushed annatto seeds.

What’s a Good Annatto Substitute?

What you choose as a replacement for annatto depends on which flavor elements you want in your dish. If you want to recreate the earthy, herbal notes of the annatto seed, go with something like beet powder, hibiscus powder or turmeric. If you want the achiote color, try nutmeg. And if you’re looking for the spicy, peppery taste, paprika is probably your best bet.

Ways to Use Annatto Seeds

While originally annatto seeds were used in many things, from makeup and body paint to insect repellant, today they are usually found in food. Here are a few tasty ways to bring annatto seeds into your kitchen.

Achiote Oil

Achiote oil is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – oil infused with the color and flavor of achiote. It’s used to give Spanish rice its famous bright orange color.

Achiote Paste

Achiote paste is an incredibly flavorful seasoning used to add spice and body to a lot of Latin American, Caribbean and Filipino dishes. Aside from ground annatto seeds, one of the other main ingredients is spicy pepper. Making it at home helps you control the level of spice you add to whatever dish you want to whip up.


We love to use achiote paste or oil to season chicken! Try our favorite Achiote Chicken or this authentic Pollo Asado! You can also add a little ground annatto to most seasoning blends to add flavor to your proteins.

Sazón Spice Blend

Sazón is a popular spice blend used to season anything from chicken and fish to veggies, rice and beans. It combines ground achiote with other popular spices like garlic powder, cumin and black pepper. There are a few different versions you might come across, but the traditional blend brings together seven different spices.

Achiote Marinade

There are plenty of different marinades that use achiote for both flavor and color. Some include ingredients like vinegar, chipotle sauce and red pepper flakes. Many of them pack in even stronger spices, while some are milder, with the annatto seeds adding a kick to a more savory mix of ingredients.

Yellow Rice (Arroz Amarillo)

Yellow rice, which is sometimes actually more orange in hue, gets its vibrant color from annatto seeds. They also give the rice a sweet, spicy nuttiness that will often be mixed with other flavors. Chicken is a popular add-in that brings some protein to the dish.

Yellow Mole Sauce (Mole Amarillo)

Chili peppers make the base of all mole sauces, but they’re usually blended with other ingredients to create a bold and complex flavor profile. Fruit, nuts, seeds and other seasonings can all find their way into a mole. Yellow mole gets its name from the yellow color of the annatto seed powder in the recipe.

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For the past 15 years, Jorge & Jessica have loved getting to share their families' favorite recipes with all of you. They live in Florida with their 3 kids.