As early as 1550 BCE, the ancient Egyptians were using anise medicinally to improve stomach and oral diseases. If you are a fan of black licorice flavor, you have probably consumed it in at least one of its modern preparations. Read on to learn more about the health benefits, culinary uses, and other applications of anise.

What Is Anise?

Anise or Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), is an aromatic flowering plant with many culinary and medicinal uses. It has been used in traditional medicine to relieve menopause symptoms, increase milk production, enhance libido, improve digestion, improve depression symptoms, and freshen breath [1, 2].

Anise belongs to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family of plants. Other members of the family include common culinary plants such as celery, carrot, fennel, caraway, and dill. The flowering anise plant resembles other members of the plant family when in bloom [2].

The plant is 45cm – 90cm tall when mature. It produces stalks of small white clustered flowers. The anise seeds arise from these same flowers.

It is native to the Eastern Mediterranean region, Southwest Asia, Middle East, Mexico, Egypt, and Spain. Anise is primarily cultivated for its fruit (seed) [2].

Anise has a strong sweet flavor that is similar to the flavor of black licorice.

Active Compounds

As with most plants, the precise chemical composition of the anise plant varies by region and cultivation method. The reported differences are so slight that manufacturers need not specify the country of origin [3+ 4+].

The seeds contain the highest concentration of oils. For this reason, commercially produced anise oil is extracted primarily from the seeds [5+, 4+, 2].

The major components of the natural essential oil of anise are as follows [5+, 4+, 2]:

  • trans-anethole (80 – 96%)
  • Estragole (Methyl chavicol) (5 – 14%)
  • Anise ketone (para-methoxyphenylacetone) (~1%)

Trans-anethole is the major active compound.

Anethole is also an antioxidant. It is highly soluble in alcohol, and less so in water. As a result, higher concentrations of anethol would be expected in alcoholic beverages than water-based beverages such as tea [6, 7+].

Anethole is also used alone as a food additive. The FDA considers it generally safe for human consumption [8, 9].

Fennel vs Anise

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is similar in many ways to anise. They both belong to the same Apiaceae family of plants, and they both have a similar but not identical black licorice flavor. They also both contain anethole, which is responsible for their unique aroma and some overlapping health benefits [10].

However, fennel contains a different set of active compounds than anise. Traditionally, fennel is used as a remedy for colds, fever, digestive problems, inflammation, and to increase breast milk production [11, 12].

Occasionally, shoppers will find fennel mislabeled as anise in grocery stores. Despite many similarities, the two plants are quite different.  

There are two main types of fennel plant. One species, Foeniculum vulgare, is grown as an herb and used as such. The other species, Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, also known as the Florence fennel, is grown as a vegetable. [11, 2]

While the leafy tops of the Florence fennel can be consumed like an herb, this species is most commonly cultivated for its dense bulb that can be cooked or eaten raw.

Anise vs Star Anise

The star anise gets its name from the fact that the dried fruit resembles an 8-point star. When ground, star anise (Illicium verum) can be confused with anise (Pimpinella anisum). While similar, the two come from different botanical families.

Unlike the small anise bush, star anise comes from a large evergreen tree that can reach heights of 65 feet when mature. Star anise is native to northeast Vietnam and Southwest China where it is a traditional ingredient in many dishes from the region [13, 2].

While the two are very similar in flavor, anise is considered much more pungent than Star Anise.

Chinese Star Anise (Illicium verum) is considered safe for human consumption. The closely related Japanese Star Anise (Illicium anisatum), however, is toxic to humans. The fruit of the two plants look similar, and there are several cases of accidental poisoning from Japanese Star Anise consumption [14, 13].

Anise Snapshot

PROS

  • High in nutrients
  • Flavorful spice for food and drinks
  • Fights bacteria and fungi
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • May improve depression symptoms
  • Promising anti-cancer properties
  • My help reduce the side effects of other drugs
  • May relieve constipation
  • Helps with menopausal symptoms
  • Can be used as a natural insecticide

CONS

  • Possible allergen, especially in people with known allergies to pollen (birch, mugwort) and/or celeriac [15]
  • Skin irritation can occur in contact with the pure essential oil
  • May decrease the effectiveness of hormonal birth control
  • High doses of estragole may promote cancer [16]

Anise Seed Benefits

1) Full of Nutrients

Anise seeds are relatively low in calories and contain a decent amount of fiber. With most recipes, you won’t be using more than 1 – 2 tablespoons (~7-14g).

Nutritional facts per 100g (~14 tablespoons) of whole anise seed (according to the US National Nutrient Database) [17]:

  • Calories: 337
  • Protein: 17.6 g
  • Total Fat: 15.9 g
  • Carbohydrates: 50.02 g
  • Fiber: 14.6 g

What’s more, anise seeds are packed with nutrients. Major vitamins and minerals in 100g of whole anise seeds [17].

This means that in two tablespoons of anise seeds (~14g), you could get about 30% of the iron you need in a day along with some manganese, calcium, and copper. Plant-based iron is harder to absorb, but you could boost it by pairing anise with foods high in vitamin C [18].  

2) Improves Symptoms of Menopause

Each year over 1.5 million women go through menopause. Many of these women report troublesome symptoms such as insomnia, hot flashes, fatigue, joint pain, decreased libido, and vaginal dryness [19].

Anise supplements reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes in menopausal women. In a clinical trial, 72 menopausal women with hot flashes were given either an anise supplement or a placebo 3 times a day for 4 weeks. Women taking the anise supplement reported significant symptom improvements [20].

The improvements in menopausal symptoms with anise supplements might be a result of estrogenlike compounds naturally present in the plant. In fact, anethole has an estrogenic effect in animals [21, 22].

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help alleviate menopausal symptoms, but it carries serious risks. Consult your physician to weigh the risks and benefits of anise supplements, especially in combination with other therapies [23, 24, 25+].

3) Reduces Inflammation

In studies on human cells, anethole (the primary active compound in anise) directly reduces inflammatory signaling. It blocks the body’s master controller of inflammation, NF-kB [10].

Both anethole and estragole (the second most abundant active compound in anise) can reduce inflammation in mice [26].

Anethole reduced the pro-inflammatory activation of immune cells (T-cells) in mouse cell studies. Anethole also synergizes with anti-inflammatory drugs. In rats, ibuprofen with anethole reduced inflammation better than either compound alone [27, 28].

4) Antioxidant Effects

Several independent studies have demonstrated the antioxidant properties of both anise and its active compounds [29, 26, 30, 31].

Oxidative stress is a large contributor to heart disease. Free radicals can oxidize and damage blood LDL (the “bad cholesterol”), which can build up in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis [32, 33].

Anise might be useful for reducing oxidative stress in atherosclerosis and other heart diseases. Specifically, anise essential oil could directly prevent the oxidation of human LDL particles in test tubes [34].

5) May Fight Cancer

In a number of studies on human cells, anethole prevented the growth of cancer cells and promoted their death. Anethole was active against prostate cells while packing it into liposomes killed breast cancer cells [35, 36].

Anethole might also be effective in preventing the spread (metastasis) of cancer throughout the body. In studies on human cells, anethole reduces the production of enzymes needed for metastasis [37, 38].

6) May Reduce The Toxicity of Drugs

The use of anethole in combination with certain cancer drugs may reduce some unwanted side effects.

Cyclophosphamide is used both as a chemotherapy drug and immunosuppressant. The drug is used clinically for many diseases, but it has serious side effects. [39, 40]

In mice with sarcoma, injections of anethole with cyclophosphamide reduced damage to the immune system, liver, and kidneys. Most importantly, anethole didn’t reduce the effectiveness of cyclophosphamide  [41].

High doses of the anti-inflammatory drug acetaminophen (Tylenol) cause serious liver damage and can be fatal  [42+].

Anethole reduces overall liver damage and protects liver cells in mice given high acetaminophen doses. These effects are likely due to its ability to lower inflammatory substances [43].

7)  Helps Combat Depression Symptoms

In traditional Persian medicine, anise is thought to warm the spirit and elevate the mood. In support of this theory, a few modern studies have shown that anise might have an antidepressant effect.

In mice, anise seed extracts reduced depression-related behaviors. Overall, the alcoholic extract had greater antidepressant effects than the water extract. The effects of anise were comparable to the common antidepressant drugs fluoxetine and imipramine [44].

Anise oil supplements improve depression symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In a trial of 120 patients in total, those receiving daily anise oil supplements over 4 weeks had improved depression symptoms compared to both peppermint oil and placebo. However, the quality of this study was low [45+].

8) May Relieve Gut Discomfort

Anise has been used since ancient times as an after-dinner digestive supplement. In ancient Greece, it was common to serve desserts spiced with anise at the end of a large meal or feast. In traditional Middle Eastern medicine, anise is used as a digestive aid that reportedly reduces gas and bloating.

Several modern studies support the use of anise to relieve the same types of stomach symptoms it was used for thousands of years ago.

For one, anise may help with constipation. In a clinical trial, 20 patients were given either a placebo tea or one containing medicinal herbs (anise, fennel, elderberry, and senna). The medicinal herb tea reduced constipation without any significant side effects. Thus, anise herbal combinations are safe and effective natural laxatives [46].

In rats, water-based anise supplements can protect against stomach ulcers [47].

Anethole alone may be effective for a condition known as functional dyspepsia, which causes excessive fullness, bloating, heartburn, and nausea after eating. In rodents, anethole promotes the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine, which may reduce common symptoms in functional dyspepsia [48, 49].

9) Fights Bacteria

Our world is filled with bacteria, some of which have the potential to cause human disease. When bacteria invade the human body and cause disease, doctors may use drugs to kill the invaders. Many of the drugs commonly used for this purpose are derived from natural sources [50, 51, 52+].

Anise extracts can prevent the growth of harmful disease-causing bacteria (such as Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Klebsiella Pneumoniae). In bacterial cultures, both water and alcohol anise seed extracts were effective against all bacteria tested [53].

Escherichia coli is a bacteria normally present in the human digestive system, but some strains can cause serious human disease. Anise’s compound estragole alone can kill Escherichia coli in test tubes. It does so by blocking the bacteria’s ability to produce energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) [54, 55].

Interestingly, whole anise plant extracts show no antibacterial effects. This suggests that the highest concentrations of active antibacterial compounds are present in the seeds, especially the essential oil extracted from them [56, 55].  

In the Food Industry

Traditional antibiotics are widely used in the poultry industry to decrease disease and promote rapid animal growth. However, concerns about the ecological effects of their overuse are on the rise, increasing the need for natural alternatives. Anise seed is one such possible alternative [57, 58].

Anise has recently been used as a natural antibiotic growth promoter in the poultry industry. As little as 10g of anise per kilogram of chicken feed can increase the health and growth of the animal [59].   

10) Kills Harmful Fungi

Anise is effective in killing several species of Candida that can cause human disease. It can also kill other species fungi (known as dermatophytes) that cause ringworm and related diseases [60, 61, 62, 63, 60, 61].

Anise essential oil is better at killing disease-causing fungi than the liquid extracts, although both have some effect [61, 60].

Anethole alone also kills certain species of harmful fungi.

One type of mold (Aspergillus fumigatus) can cause serious lung infections in people with weakened immune systems. In test tubes, purified anethole killed this mold. It probably works by triggering programmed death pathways in the mold (apoptosis) [62, 64].

11) Can be Used as a Natural Insecticide

Anise extracts are effective insecticides that can be used to kill common commercial food production pests.

In insects, anise oil was active against a type of fly larvae (Lycoriella ingenua). Its active compound, trans-anethole, is responsible for the effect [65].

Anise oil spray (aerosolized) is lethal to adult spider mites and cotton aphids [66+].  

The oil can also be used to kill tropical mosquitoes. Both the essential oil and purified trans-anethole are effective at killing adult mosquitoes and their larva [67].  

Anise Tea Benefits

Many traditional preparations of anise rely on hot water extraction of the seeds. Anise seed tea prepared this way reportedly relieves gas and bloating; however, such claims have not been validated by scientific studies.

The combination of anise with other herbs (fennel, elderberry, and senna) did relieve constipation in one study. Note that senna in this tea was probably responsible for most of the laxative effects [46].

Since anise seeds are rich in nutrients and antioxidants, you may steep them with hot water, and consume the seeds along with the tea to get the benefits. Alternatively, crushing the seeds may release the beneficial oil [17].

Anise seed tea has also been used in traditional medicine for its diuretic effects. In contrast, anise seed tea actually has an anti-diuretic effect in rats – it reduced urine output [68].

Anise Essential Oil & Extracts

Many of the reported effects of anise are linked to compounds in the oil, specifically trans-anethole.

Food-grade anise essential oil can be added to foods directly.

As with any essential oil, take the proper precautions when using it topically. Many essential oils, including anise, can irritate the skin if undiluted.

Anise extracts, on the other hand, are usually made from both the leaves and the seeds. They are often used in baking, as a flavorful addition to cookies, desserts, and other recipes.

You can purchase a ready-to-use extract, but make sure it doesn’t contain any synthetic additives.

Anise Extract Recipe

It’s quite easy to make your own alcoholic extract using just anise seeds. Most users recommend the following process:

  1. Add one cup of alcohol (e.g. vodka) to 1 teaspoon of the seeds in a jar.
  2. Close the jar and store it in a cool, dark place.
  3. Occasionally shake the contents (once in 1 – 2 weeks)
  4. Let stand for 2 – 3 months before using.
  5. Once it’s ready, filter the extract through a cheesecloth into a clean jar.    

You’ll know it’s ready once the liquid builds a strong aroma. The longer you let it stand, the more aromatic it will get. Some prefer to wait up to 6 months, but that depends on the intensity you’re aiming for.

Anise Seed Substitute

It is possible to substitute other similar tasting seeds such as star anise, fennel seeds, or caraway seeds in recipes.

More Anise Recipes

How to Make Anise Tea

For a simple anise seed tea, you can use either ground or whole seeds. Grounding or crushing the seeds will release more oil. You want to add about 2 teaspoons per 8 ounces of hot water. Let the tea steep for 10 minutes, then filter the beverage.

Other medicinal herbs can be added to the simple anise tea as desired. Ginger root, honey, and lemon are popular and pair nicely with the licorice flavor of anise.

Anise in Baked Goods

The subtly sweet flavor of anise works well in sweet baked goods. You can try some ground anise seed (or anise seed extract) in cookies, cakes, and breads.

Anise Liquors

Anise is a popular flavoring agent in many popular liquors. It is used in to make Ouzo (Greece), Sambuca (Italy), Jagermeister (Germany), and Raki (Turkey). While many home cooks might shy away from making these liquors from scratch, they can easily be mixed into a cocktail as well as enjoyed straight.

Anise with Other Herbs

Licorice

Licorice candy is traditionally made from the root of the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Most black licorice candy in the US, on the other hand, is actually made from other safer but similarly flavored plants, including anise [69].

Traditional black licorice contains a naturally occurring compound known as glycyrrhizin. This compound is responsible for the sweet characteristic flavor of licorice. Although glycyrrhizin carries some health benefits, it has been linked to several serious side effects, especially in people with heart disease [70, 71, 72, 73].

To avoid possible side effects of glycyrrhizin, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is commercially available [70].

Thyme

The antimicrobial activity of anise oil is increased by the addition of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) oil. In combination, the two oils were effective against most harmful bacteria tested [74].

Limitations and Caveats

Future studies should measure changes in circulating blood estrogen levels after treatment with anise.

Evaluation of blood estrogen levels after treatment would shed light on the possible mechanism of action. More research is needed to understand the effects of anise on hormone levels to access the risks and benefits associated.

Human studies suggest that anise oil may be an effective antidepressant. However, recent studies only explored its antidepressant potential in people with confounding gut issues [75, 45].

Therefore, it is unclear what role the underlying gut disease had on the results. Future research should also report any changes in pre-existing diseases along with depression scores.

Buy Anise

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Take-Away:

Anise is a flavorful green herb that is primarily grown for its licorice-flavored seeds. It is a key ingredient in many dishes and drinks around the world and has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.

Anise seeds are packed with nutrients and antioxidants. Their benefits for stomach issues are supported by modern studies. Anise also has estrogen-like compounds and may improve hormone- and menopause-related issues in women. The seeds and oil from anise may also help fight cancer, kill harmful bacteria, fungi, and pests.  

If you’re looking for a healthy, aromatic herb to add to your natural apothecary, anise is easy to find and use. You can buy the whole or ground seeds for tea, get the essential oil, or go for standardized extracts. Just make sure you’re not allergic to it before using larger quantities.

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