Anatto prevents the formation of cancer cells and skin damage from UV radiation, according to the researchers at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy. This research team have made this claim after discovering a compound found in this natural food additive named bixin worked in mice in their study “System Administration of the Apocarotenoid Bixin Protects Skin against Solar UV-Induced Damage Through Activation of Nrf2.”

The study, published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, states that bixin is a compound that has a bright reddish orange colour in annatto. Annatto is a natural ingredient and food colouring from the seeds of the achiote fruit, which has actually been used in Latin American cuisine even before Christopher Columbus arrived.

Wikimedia/Leonardo Ré-Jorge

Wikimedia/Leonardo Ré-Jorge

Georg Wondrak, associate professor at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, has been searching molecules from edible plants that can prevent skin cancer. This new study involved exposing mice which have been injected with bixin and those without to UV radiation.

The researchers discovered that the mice that have been injected with the compound suffered less severe skin sun damage. According to Wondrak, this finding is a breakthrough since bixin is not used as a sunscreen applied to the skin, but simply a commonly eaten food substance.

Bixin works by enabling cells to produce antioxidants and other repair factors. The scientists note that this compound prevents cancer cells from forming in the first place rather than killing skin cancer cells.

The researchers say that a new study is needed to confirm that bixin also works in humans. Fortunately, annatto is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration so only a few rounds of testing are required, making clinical trials easier.

The team is optimistic that this will pave the way for new and improved therapies. As more studies delve into bixin’s effects, treatments to alleviate sun damage, photoaging or dermatoheliosis and cancer may be available soon.