6 best powders to use as annatto substitute

annatto substitute
You can use annatto powder to enhance the flavor and color of dishes. When you can’t find it in grocery stores, know that some of the best substitutes are ground paprika, hibiscus powder, turmeric powder, cumin, beet powder, and safflower.

What is the flavor of annatto?

Annatto comes from the seeds of the spiny fruits of the achiote tree. This spice referred to in some cultures as achiote, urucum, bija, or atsuete, gives foods a vibrant orange to sometimes intense red color. 

Besides being an important food coloring agent, annatto injects a hint of sweetness nutty, and mild peppery taste into soups, rice dishes, stews, and curries.

This spice is present in Latin American, Central American, Caribbean, and Asian cuisines. You will likely use annatto in Latin-style paella, Mexican pollo asado, Filipino oxtail stew kare kare, Yucatan pulled pork or the Brazilian stew moqueca capixaba. 

You can buy annatto in different forms, such as annatto seeds, annatto powder, achiote seeds infused in oil, or achiote paste.

Aside from being a popular food additive, annatto is known to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Experts also claim its health benefits may include reducing inflammation and protecting from age-related cardiac issues.

Is annatto like saffron?

Annatto is also known as poor man’s saffron. Both spices lend a complex flavor to dishes, although they might not match their flavors. If you need to substitute saffron, use a teaspoon of annatto powder for every 10 strands of saffron.

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See the table below for quick annatto vs. saffron comparison regarding taste, storage, price, and shelf life.

TasteAnnatto comes with a mildly sweet and peppery flavor that may be described as nutty or earthy, just like nutmeg or cinnamon. Its flavor is not as distinct as saffron.Saffron gives dishes a unique floral, honey-like flavor and aroma. Since it is a costly spice, it is often used in small quantities.
StorageAnnatto seeds or powder should be stored in an airtight container in a dry, cool place such as a pantry or cupboard to prevent contact with moisture. Annatto oil or paste should be stored in the refrigerator once opened.Saffron threads should be placed in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dark place. They should also be kept away from light, heat, and moisture, or they can lose color, aroma, and flavor. 
PriceAnnatto can is common in most grocery stores and spice shops. It’s relatively inexpensive.Because of the labor-intensive process of harvesting the thin saffron threads, it is the most expensive spice in the world, costing around $5,000 per pound.
Shelf lifeAnnatto seeds may last up to 2 to 3 years if stored properly. Annatto oil may last around 2 weeks in the refrigerator, while the paste will be good for about 3 months.When properly stored, saffron threads may last 2 to 3 years.

What is annatto powder made from?

Annatto powder is typically made by grinding and combining annatto seeds with other spices such as cumin, coriander, paprika, and turmeric. Adding an annatto spice blend results in a dish with a hint of mild, earthy, and peppery flavor. Below is a list of ingredients and their flavor profiles if you plan to make annatto powder:

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Annatto seedsA mildly sweet, hint of pepper and a subtle nutty flavor
Cumin seedsGive the annatto powder a slightly smoky, bitter, warm flavor
Coriander seedsSlightly nutty and sweet, with a similar flavor to thyme or sage
Turmeric powderPleasantly bitter to almost musky flavor, plus distinct vibrant yellow color
Paprika powderSlightly sweet and smoky to hot and pungent, depending on where you source it
ClovesSubtle sweet flavor with hints of bitterness
OreganoPungent with musty and minty notes that imparts some astringency
Black peppercornsSharp woody and piney flavor with hints of floral, bitter, and citrusy notes

Top 5 substitutes for annatto powder

If you cannot get hold of annatto powder or annatto seeds, here are some of the best alternatives:

  1. Safflower
  2. Ground paprika
  3. Turmeric powder
  4. Beet powder
  5. Cumin
SafflowerPetals of the safflower lend a mild flavor described as notes of tobacco and chocolate, works well with soups or stews
Ground paprikaHas smoky yet sweet flavor, good replacement in soups, baked dishes, and stews
Turmeric powderHas a stronger earthy flavor with hints of pepper and ginger and some astringency, goes well with lentils and legumes
Beet powderThis spice lends dishes an earthy, slightly nutty, and sweet flavor, suitable for smoothies, and baked dishes that require similarly pleasing vibrant colors
CuminA good annatto powder substitute if you want to give the dish hints of lemon, pepper, and smokiness, works well in various soups, rice dishes, stews, and bread

1. Safflower


Like annatto, safflower is also called false saffron or poor man’s saffron. Petals of the safflower lend a mild flavor described as notes of tobacco and chocolate. However, because of its mildness, you need to use a lot of safflowers to enjoy its flavors. 

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You may barely taste the flavor of safflower, but you will surely notice how it gives your soups or stews a tint of red or orange color. If you’ll substitute annatto powder with safflower powder, use as much of the latter for the former or a 1:1 ratio.

2. Ground Paprika

Ground paprika
Ground paprika

Ground paprika is made from crushed dried chili peppers and may vary from mild to hot depending on the type of pepper used (often bell peppers). This means some paprikas will give you that smoky yet sweet flavor, while others may have that spicier and stronger kick. You can use it in soups, baked dishes, and stews.

Similar to annatto, paprika is also a natural food coloring. It is a close-to-perfect match if you’re looking for the best substitute for annatto because, aside from the flavor, it also gives food the same tint.

You can use 1 teaspoon of paprika for a teaspoon of annatto powder if you’re using the sweet type. However, if your ground paprika is spicy, you may want to taste the food as you add the seasoning to be on the safe side.

3. Turmeric Powder

Turmeric powder
Turmeric powder

Turmeric is another great substitute for annatto powder with a similar taste profile. Note that turmeric has a stronger earthy flavor with hints of pepper and ginger and some astringency. Plus, the color of the dish will be yellow instead of orange/red shade.

When substituting annatto powder with turmeric powder, you can do a 1:1 ratio. Turmeric powder is perfect for rice dishes, giving them a unique flavor and color. You can also use it with lentils and legumes.

4. Beet Powder

Beet powder
Beet powder

Beet powder comes from beetroot that’s dried and processed into powder form. This spice lends dishes an earthy, slightly nutty, and sweet flavor. The pink-to-ruby red vibrancy of beet powder makes it one of the best alternatives to annatto powder. 

Its flavor and color make it suitable for kwek kwek (a popular deep-fried Filipino street food covered with an orange batter), smoothies, and baked dishes that require similarly pleasing vibrant colors. Follow the same 1:1 ratio as other annatto powder alternatives.

5. Cumin


Cumin is a good annatto powder substitute if you want to give the dish hints of lemon, pepper, and smokiness. Often used in Indian cuisines, such as curries and chutney, cumin works well in various soups, rice dishes, stews, and bread. You can also mix it in certain sauces.

It is best to use ground cumin conservatively because of its flavor. When substituting annatto powder with cumin, use a 1:1/2 ratio. The color of the dish will also be brown instead of red-orange when using cumin.

Can I use Hibiscus powder instead of annatto powder?

Hibiscus powder
Hibiscus powder

Hibiscus powder is another excellent substitute for annatto powder, especially as a food coloring. Hibiscus powder gives dishes a burgundy red tint compared to annatto’s red-orange.

You can create vinaigrette or oil for your salads by mixing 1 tablespoon of hibiscus powder with your vinegar or oil. Its fresh and fruity profile blends well with the tart flavors. As for the ratio, you can use 1 teaspoon of hibiscus powder in place of 1 teaspoon of annatto powder.


Randell loves experimenting in the kitchen (with his family and friends as willing victims). He sees cooking as a great adventure. To enjoy that, he believes this is the recipe: a tad of creativity, a dash of courage, a pinch of humility, and a ton of love.

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