Bixa orellana, commonly referred to as annatto, is a shrub that is native to South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. Annatto grows branches and prickly, reddish-orange, heart-shaped pods; each pod contains approximately 50 seeds. Rainforest tribes have used annatto seeds and leaves for a variety of medicinal purposes for centuries. As with any herbal product, you should talk to your healthcare practitioner before consuming annatto seeds and/or leaves.
According to Phyllis Balch in her book “Prescription for Nutritional Healing,” annatto contains amino acids, calcium, iron and phosphorus, as well as vitamins B-2 and B-3. Annatto also contains beta-carotene and vitamin C, which are both potent antioxidants that help to prevent free-radical induced damage to your cells and DNA. In addition, annatto contains the phytochemicals cyanidin, ellagic acid, salicylic acid, saponins and tannins. Phytochemicals are compounds found naturally in plants that help to prevent and treat disease in humans.
Shared Benefits of the Seeds and Leaves
Annatto seeds and leaves have diuretic, antibacterial and astringent properties. In addition, Balch states that annatto seeds and leaves help to protect and strengthen the kidneys. Annatto is also said to promote digestive system health and is used to relieve constipation, indigestion, heartburn and stomach distress caused by the consumption of spicy foods. Annatto has been traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and to promote weight loss, as well as to treat fevers, hepatitis, malaria, dysentery and venomous snakebites. These uses are based on anecdotal and not scientific evidence, however.
Specific Benefits From Seeds
Annatto seeds are used to help tone, balance and strengthen the liver and reduce liver inflammation. They are also purported to lower total cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure and treat edema. In addition, the seeds have expectorant properties -- meaning, they help to clear mucus from the lungs. Therefore, they may be beneficial to mucous-related disorders such as asthma, bronchitis and coughs. Raintree Nutrition warns that the seeds may raise blood sugar levels, however, so the seeds should not be consumed by diabetics.
Specific Benefits From Leaves
Dried annatto leaves are referred to as achiotec and are a popular herbal remedy in Peruvian herbal medicine today. Achiotec is used to reduce inflammation; to lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol; and to treat prostate disorders, cystitis and obesity. According to Raintree Nutrition, to make achiotec, boil eight to 10 leaves in 1 L of water for 10 minutes and then let it cool. Drink it three times daily. The achiotec liquid can also be applied topically to promote wound healing, cleanse skin infections and treat burns. Despite the presumed safety of annatto seeds and leaves, the purported health benefits are based on historical use and not scientific fact.