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— Annatto, the orange-hued extract from seeds of the Bixa orellana tree grown in equatorial regions, has been widely used as a coloring and spice for centuries and as a cheese pigment since the late 1800s.Its popularity continues to flourish, especially as food companies recently have started seeking more natural ingredients due to increased consumer demand. Hansen has been supplying annatto colors for the cheese and dairy industry since 1876, two years after the company was founded.The company notes that the major proportion of the world’s annatto production comes from the collection of seeds from small trees and bushes planted on family farms.

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“Annatto is an ancient seed that has been used for a very long time, all the way back to local tribes using it for face painting and the coloring of clothes,” says Christian Hjortholm Steffensen, marketing manager and strategic account manager, Chr. Steffensen adds that annatto is an affordable and widely used natural coloring for cheese and other food products in the United States and most parts of the world.“It’s a relatively inexpensive natural color,” he says.“Many natural colors are quite expensive compared to artificial colors.Annatto is an exception, due to its large tradition and supply network.” There are two primary types of annatto coloring: bixin, which is oil-soluble, and norbixin, which is water-soluble. “Norbixin is used in natural cheeses like Cheddar, Red Leicester or Gouda, vanilla ice cream, peach yogurt, chocolate drink mix and egg substitutes.” The use of annatto originated as a way to achieve a consistent color for cheese, according to David Potter, vice president and technical manager of Madison, Wisconsin-based The Dairy Connection, an ingredient supplier to small-scale cheesemakers.“The food industry uses bixin for things like butter, processed cheese, popcorn oil and certain snacks,” says Campbell Barnum, vice president of branding and market development at global color provider D. “In the winter it would be very white, and in the summer, when the cows were out on pasture, there was more beta carotene in the milk, producing a richer cheese color,” Potter says.

“When marketing it on a large scale, they wanted more of a standardized color approach.” Potter adds that annatto tends to be used more in Cheddar in the Midwest, while more Cheddars on the East and West coasts are white.

Annatto also is used more commonly in barrel cheese and shreds.

• Natural demand At the beginning of this year, Kraft Heinz changed the formulation of its Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, replacing synthetic colors with colors derived from annatto and other natural sources.

This greatly increased the demand for annatto, contributing to rising prices.

“Because of the size and scale of these major brands, this does change the amount of supply needed from the annatto industry,” Steffensen says.

“With consumers being more concerned than ever with what they eat, the demand for natural pigments like annatto will most likely only go up from here.” He adds that there may be even more demand in the future as other leading food manufacturers such as Mars, General Mills, Kellogg’s and others also have committed to converting to natural colors, potentially increasing demand for annatto in the confectionery, cereal and other industries.