As early as 1550 BC, the ancient Egyptians were using anise medicinally to improve stomach and oral diseases. If you are a fan of black licorice flavor, you will also this pungent spice. Besides the taste and nutritional value, it can improve digestion, menopausal symptoms, mood, and more. Read on to learn anise health benefits, culinary uses, and recipes.
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 .
The plant is 45-90 cm 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) .
Anise has a strong sweet flavor that is similar to the flavor of black licorice.
- High in nutrients
- Flavorful spice for food and drinks
- Improves digestion and relieves IBS
- Fights bacteria and fungi
- Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant
- May improve depression and menopausal symptoms
- May relieve constipation
- Possible allergen
- Skin irritation can occur in contact with the pure essential oil
- All benefits lack solid clinical evidence
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].
- 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 anethole would be expected in alcoholic beverages than water-based beverages such as tea [6, 7].
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 (~7-14 g).
Nutritional facts per 100 g (~14 tablespoons) of whole anise seed (according to the US National Nutrient Database) :
- 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 .
- Iron: 37 mg (205% daily value)
- Manganese: 23 mg (115% daily value)
- Calcium: 646 mg (65% daily value)
- Copper: 0.9 mg (46% daily value)
- Vitamin B6: 0.7 mg (33% daily value)
- Vitamin C: 21 mg (35% daily value)
- Provitamin A: 311 IU (6% daily value)
This means that in two tablespoons of anise seeds (~14 g), 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 .
Anise might be useful for reducing oxidative stress in atherosclerosis and heart disease. Specifically, anise essential oil could directly prevent the oxidation of human LDL particles in test tubes .
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 .
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 [20, 21].
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 [20, 2].
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 [22, 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 [23, 22].
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.
In a trial of 107 patients, taking anise powder (9 g daily for 4 weeks) improved symptoms of functional dyspepsia (indigestion) compared to placebo. Anise improved all symptoms except for nausea and vomiting .
In rats, water-based anise supplements protected against stomach ulcers .
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 [26, 27].
Further research is warranted to confirm the preliminary results.
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of anise for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
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 .
The improvements in menopausal symptoms with anise supplements might be a result of estrogen-like compounds naturally present in the plant. In fact, anethole has an estrogenic effect in animals [31, 32].
Still, much more research is needed before proclaiming anse effective for menopausal symptoms.
In traditional Persian medicine, anise is thought to warm the spirit and elevate the mood.
In a trial of 120 IBS patients, 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, and we can’t draw any reliable conclusions .
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 .
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. However, senna is a well-known natural laxative and it likely contributed to this effect .
No clinical evidence supports the use of anise for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
In mice with sarcoma, injections of anethole with cyclophosphamide (chemotherapy) reduced damage to the immune system, liver, and kidneys. Most importantly, anethole didn’t reduce the effectiveness of cyclophosphamide .
Excessive doses of the anti-inflammatory drug acetaminophen (Tylenol) cause serious liver damage .
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 .
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 .
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) [40, 41].
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 [42, 41].
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 [43, 44].
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 .
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) [48, 50].
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 .
Anise oil spray (aerosolized) is lethal to adult spider mites and cotton aphids .
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 .
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.
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 .
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.
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.
It’s quite easy to make your own alcoholic extract using just anise seeds. Most users recommend the following process:
- Add one cup of alcohol (e.g. vodka) to 1 teaspoon of the seeds in a jar.
- Close the jar and store it in a cool, dark place.
- Occasionally shake the contents (once in 1 – 2 weeks)
- Let stand for 2 – 3 months before using.
- 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.
It is possible to substitute other similar tasting seeds such as star anise, fennel seeds, or caraway seeds in recipes.
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 bread.
Anise is a popular flavoring agent in many popular liquors. It is used 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.
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 .
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 [55, 56, 57, 58].
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 of the harmful bacteria tested .
Anise is a flavorful green herb primarily grown for its 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 and oil can improve digestion and help with IBS. They may also relieve constipation, improve mood and menopausal symptoms, and kill harmful microbes, but the evidence is limited.
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 and consult your doctor before using larger quantities.