Achiote seed: a functional food

Achiote is also an important agricultural resource, the object of much research for its conservation and genetic improvement, let's read why.

Achiote seed: a functional food
In the southeast of Mexico, achiote is a basic ingredient for many dishes. Photo: Agricultura

Although achiote has been consumed in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times, it is currently undervalued and tends to disappear; however, it has the potential to be used as a functional ingredient in food processing due to its high nutritional value, bioactive compounds, and antioxidant capacity.

As part of her academic training as a Master of Science at the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD), Lilibeth Andujo Ponce, under the academic direction of research professor Celia Chávez Mendoza, conducted a study to determine the nutraceutical and nutritional quality of achiote seed (Bixa Orellana L.) from producing regions of Mexico.

In the context that there is currently a high world demand for foods with excellent nutritional quality, of natural origin, and that are not collaterally harmful to the consumer, Andujo Ponce evaluated the potential of achiote seeds collected in the states of Yucatan, Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz.

The young researcher explained that this crop is important within the food industry, given the growing demand for natural colorants; however, it has properties that have not been taken advantage of, since it is a food rich in phytonutrients, among which carotenoids stand out; among these, bixin stands out as its main compound, which provides it with a high antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic power, among others.

Within the framework of the research project, the morphological, physicochemical, nutritional, and nutraceutical characteristics of the seed were analyzed. The results showed significant differences (P<0.05) between producing regions for all variables except hue angle or hue (color) (P>0.05).

The seed from the region of Huixtán, Margaritas, and Chiapas, was the heaviest and longest; it had the highest fat content and a tendency to red and yellow color in-ground seed. On the contrary, the seed from the region of San Pedro Tapanatepec, Oaxaca, was the smallest and with the lowest weight and also had the highest concentration of vitamin C, total phenols, total carotenoids, and the highest antioxidant capacity, showing no statistical difference in this last variable with the seed from the region of Nuevo Jericó Palenque, Chiapas, and Mérida, Yucatán, with 77.19, 75.05 and 77.17% inhibition, respectively;

Finally, Lilibeth Andujo commented that she would like to investigate the potential of the achiote seed as a source of bioactive compounds, colorants, and preservatives in food products and as a partial and total substitute for nitrites in meat products.

Five things you should know about achiote

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, achiote was little used in cooking because it was a sacred plant related to blood. The national production of this crop amounts to 527 tons.

A colorant widely used in the food, cosmetics, and textile industries is extracted from the achiote seed. A third of achiote production, 131 tons, is marketed as a pigment.

Achiote is the base of cochinita pibil, Yucatecan codzitos, as well as vinaigrettes, rice, and countless preparations of Mexican cuisine. The leading states in production are Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Yucatan.

The medicinal properties of achiote are used to alleviate kidney problems, stomach pathologies, burns, throat ailments, respiratory problems, conjunctivitis, headaches, and wounds. Achiote in Mexico, as a native crop, is considered a millenary patrimony due to its great importance in national and world agricultural production.

It is also used as a living hedge, to control soil erosion, and recently the red variety has become popular for ornamental purposes. The SNICS currently has 79 accessions (property and rights) of achiote seeds collected nationally and stored in the Conservation Centers.