Annatto, the Multifaceted Natural Dye of South America

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on pinterest

The Environment has become a growing concern in recent times as we’re quickly coming across aggressive climate changes.

These changes have everything to do with how we live and spend our money to satisfy our needs. As a result, the shift toward eco-friendly products became essential to regain the balance lost many years ago.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, which manufactures millions of pieces of clothing annually. This industry is also responsible for using toxic and eco-threatening materials such as synthetic dyes, which pollute rivers and streams.  

Dyes produced out of petrochemicals is an excellent economical solution to many manufacturers, mainly because it is easier and cheaper to produce a wide variety of vibrant colors with simple, standardized techniques. However, the profit size comes short compared to the human and environmental price paid to make these synthetic dyes. 

The textile industry has long been called out for the multitude of dangers their workers face daily by being exposed to toxic chemicals. And, for the appalling quantities of chemical waste released out of these processes, ending up in sewers leading to important bodies of water.

An Ancient But New Choice – Natural Dyes

An alternative to avoid synthetic products was found in the ancient arts of natural dyeing. It is an activity as old as the pre-historic times but still innovative and unconventional for many modern textile manufacturers. 

A natural dye gets the adjective when its source comes from the environment, so they can be extracted from plants, minerals, or insects and later mixed with metallic salts to fix the color to the fiber. Most common natural fibers, such as wool, silk, and cotton, react favorably to them. 

Natural dyes produce very soft and soothing hues of color; most of them very appealing to the human eye. They have the potential to produce unique colors since a minimal variation in the dyeing technique gives a different result.

     Natural dyed wool, picture by: Alan J Gill – CC


Natural dyes can be found in multiple different ecosystems. Most ancient civilizations were familiar with dyeing fabrics by extracting the colors from leaves, branches, roots, and even secretions of insects.

Every region had its own dyeing technique. Although many of these traditions were swept away by industrial advances, some survived and are still being practiced in remote areas of the world.

      Picture by Alan J Gill – CC

In South America, many ethnicities located in The Andes region have rich knowledge of natural dyeing, thanks to the diversity of plant life surrounding them. These dyes’ properties go way beyond their beautiful colors, as most of them have medicinal properties. All of them are biodegradable, and they are also widely available within their native region. 

Plants and natural resources represent many aspects and facets of these communities’ daily lives, from clothing to health, and some even go as far as being edible. That is the case for a dye extracted from a shrub called Bixa Orellana, commonly known as Annatto or Achiote.

 © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Annatto: Many Shades Of Red For Many Uses

The fruits of the Annatto are small, brightly colored red pods with a spiny surface, which have seeds covered with an oily red coloring substance in their insides. Its most popular use is culinary, as it is widely known as a food condiment. 

For Central and South America, the Annatto ground seeds are essential colorants for meats, cheese, rice, and margarine. It is found in many traditional South American dishes as a main ingredient. 

Its second use is cosmetic. Its pigmentation is so concentrated that it works as a perfect natural dye for lipstick and even hair as it does not harm the skin or hair strands. This particular use has made the shrub earn a trendy nickname: The Lipstick Tree. 

In the Amazon, indigenous tribes use pigments derived from Annatto seeds to make red body paint and protect their skin from sun damage. Other benefits are medicinal due to its excellent antimicrobial properties.

Annatto used as body paint – Picture by: xeni4ka

However, the Annatto seeds’ most exciting use is to produce a wide array of yellow, orange, and red hues. Many studies have shown that they are perfect dyestuffs for different natural fabric types, such as alpaca fiber, cotton, and silk. To fix the color in these fabrics, people produce the dye along with other ingredients, such as caustic soda and, in some cases, solvents.

This discovery wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the magnificent work of traditional dyeing made by many South American ethnicities, who have been using Annatto seeds as a colorant to dye fabric over hundreds of years.

For instance, the Bora people from the Peruvian Amazon continue to produce beautiful and colorful weaving crafts using natural dyes like the Anatto’s seeds. The process employed by the Bora artisans for dyeing fabric consists of soaking the selected fiber in a bowl filled with Annatto seed oil and then letting it boil until the color gets fastened to the material. Once done, the fabric gets washed and left to dry out on its own. 

 © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The fiber commonly used by the Bora people is extracted from Chambira palms, a thick and coarse fiber, denser than cotton or silk. Despite this, the Annatto dye has no trouble fixing itself into the thread, which means it has excellent fastening properties. 

Chambira palm dyed with Annatto.  © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The chambira palm is then used to create handwoven crafts such as baskets, trivet, place mats, coasters or decorations that can be displayed in your home. 

Handwoven baskets from Center for Amazon community ecology

While there’s enough ancient and traditional evidence concerning the viability of using the seeds of the Bixa Orellana shrub as a natural dye, a sad setback is that more complete and comprehensive research is needed to secure its commercial implementation. 

However, the lack of technical knowledge is always temporary for things that truly matter and are needed as the environmental associations, and now consumers move toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

As citizens and consumers, we can be active actors of change. It is crucial to educate ourselves to learn about the dangers and consequences of consuming several products without being aware of its source or its way of production. The best way to solve problems is to find the hidden answers that have always been there.

By Amalia

By Amalia

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to top
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x