Soap making secrets: Where does the natural colorant annatto come from?

Soap making secrets: Annatto seed pods

One of my favorite natural colorants to use in my soap is annatto. I infuse olive oil with annatto seeds to get a rich orange color for my handmade Soap á l’orange. Annatto is a colorant that comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, which is native to tropical countries.

I’ve been using dried annatto seeds since I started making cold process soap.

Dried annatto seeds

In November, I was able to see where those seeds come from during a trip to Costa Rica.

Achiote (annatto) tree

The achiote tree is a relatively short evergreen, growing to around 30 feet at its tallest. It’s easy to see why the achiote is a popular landscaping plant in warm climates, even in the United States.

Achiote flower

It produces beautiful light pink flowers that stand in stark contrast to the bright red spiky seed pods that later develop.

Achiote (annatto) seed pod

Our guide for the day demonstrated how native Costa Ricans cracked the seed pod open and turned the seeds into a bright orange-red paste. With the help of a brave volunteer (who not five minutes earlier also volunteered to eat a termite), he showed us how the paste was used as face paint for certain ceremonies.

Making achiote (annatto) paste

Annatto is extremely versatile and is used to color everything from margarine to paint. Costa Ricans love using it in their most popular dish, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). It gives the rice the same nice yellow tint as saffron at a fraction of the cost.

If you’d like to learn more about how to use annatto as a colorant in soap, check out my easy DIY for infusing olive oil