Urucum: More Than a Food Coloring
Urucum, or Bixa orellana, is known internationally as Annatto, but to me it’s very much a Brazilian herb and I’ve known about it since I was a child. The Urucum tree grows to as high as six meters (20 feet) and produces a spiny, copper-colored fruit. Inside this fruit are red seeds that are used principally for their color.
The first Portuguese settlers in Brazil noticed that the native people used a red paint on their bodies that was made from Urucum, which comes from the Tupi word uru’ku meaning red. The natural coloring from Urucum has since been used throughout Brazil in all sorts of country cooking and also as a general dye. But the seeds are also used as laxatives and digestive aids and also help with bronchitis and burns. In some regions, the roots and leaves are used in the treatment of gonorrhea and herpes.
Today Urucum is exported to North America and Europe, where it’s used as a coloring for a range of industrial applications, foods, and beauty products. The greatest producers of Urucum are Brazil, Peru and Kenya (the Spanish brought the plant to Africa from South America).
When I was a kid, Urucum was often used as an artificial tanning ointment. Some people would show up at the swimming pool or waterfall (I grew up in the interior of Brazil) with Urucum in carrot oil to help jump start their tans.
Urucum is rich in carotenoids, which give the seeds their characteristic reddish-orange color. The seeds also contain proteins, calcium, iron and vitamins B2, B2 and B3. Urucum is useful as an expectorant and is beneficial for hypertension, digestive problems, parasites, circulation, heart disease, high cholesterol, skin lesions, and constipation. Oh, and it makes a good food coloring too.