Food as Medicine: Anise (Pimpinella anisum, Apiaceae)

Anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum, Apiaceae) is a herbaceous annual that grows to almost a meter (3.3 feet) in height. The lower leaves of the plant are dark green, heart-shaped, and shallowly lobed, while the upper leaves are feathery. In the summer, the plant produces small, white flowers in an umbrella-shaped head, and, in the fall, these flowers produce aromatic fruits that are three to four millimeters in length. These fruits, called “anise seeds” in the market and referred to in the rest of this article as “seeds,” are the medicinal and culinary portion of the plant.

The cultivation of anise, which is native to the Anatolian peninsula, Greece, and Egypt, has spread to other countries. The plant grows well in warm, frost-free climates. Anise should not be confused with fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, Apiaceae), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae), or star anise (Illicium verum, Schisandraceae), which have similar flavors but different medicinal effects.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Anise contains a number of biologically important substances, in particular, its essential oil. The most abundant constituent of aniseed essential oil is trans-anethole, which makes up 80-90% of the oil.

Other components found in anise include a variety of coumarins (scopoletin, umbelliferone, umbelliprenine, and bergapten), flavonoids (quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, and their glycosides), and other aromatic oil compounds (estragole, anise ketone, and beta-caryophyllene). Some coumarins have anticoagulant (blood-thinning) properties and increase blood flow while decreasing capillary permeability. Certain flavonoids, such as quercetin, have antioxidant activities that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and various types of cancer.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Anise has been used in culinary and medical applications for more than 3,000 years. The gray-brown, ovoid seeds are known for their gastrointestinal benefits, relieving distention and cramping due to gas, and for being a mild cough reliever and expectorant. A folk remedy for hiccups calls for a few seeds taken with water.

The earliest recorded medicinal use of anise seed dates back to 1500 BCE in Egypt, as mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus as a medicine for flatulence. The use of anise spread through trade and became a common medicine throughout the Mediterranean, East Asia, and Europe. The Greek physician Dioscorides described anise in his 70 CE medical treatise De materia medica as warming and drying and recommended it as a vermifuge as well as for bad breath, headaches, low milk supply in nursing mothers, colds, and to aid digestion. Around the same time period, Roman statesman Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia that the best anise came from Crete, and that “it is generally thought that there is nothing in existence more beneficial to the abdomen and intestines than anise.”9 Pliny also described the use of anise for convulsions and seizures.

Traditional Chinese medicine indicated anise as a remedy for a cough and gastrointestinal upset, and the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine noted anise as a gas reliever and aromatic spice. Native Amazonians used it as a gentle remedy for children with stomach aches. In traditional Iranian medicine, anise has been used as an analgesic for migraines and as a carminative, aromatic, disinfectant, and diuretic. In some traditional texts, anise is mentioned as a remedy for melancholy, nightmares, and as a treatment for epilepsy and seizures. The German Commission E monographs list the internal use of anise seed decoction or essential oil for dyspepsia, sore throats, and coughs, and the inhalation of preparations containing 5-10% essential oil for sore throats and coughs. The monographs of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is the medicine authority for the European Union, indicate the oral use of anise preparations for the symptomatic treatment of mild, spasmodic gastrointestinal complaints, including bloating and flatulence, and as an expectorant in a cough associated with cold.

The seeds are mildly estrogenic and promote milk production. In the Netherlands, anise seed cookies are a traditional gift given to new mothers to ensure a plentiful milk supply. Although the whole seed is generally considered a safe addition to a postpartum diet, there have been two reported cases of nursing mothers who drank large amounts (2 liters per day) of fennel and anise tea, which caused weakness and vomiting in their newborns. Symptoms resolved quickly after consumption of the tea was discontinued, with no known long-term effects for mothers or infants.

Currently, anise seeds are a popular flavoring for liquor, desserts, and other culinary applications. Almost every culture around the globe has a liquor made from anise, including Middle Eastern arak; Greek ouzo; Turkish rakı; French absinthe, anisette, and pastis (and, it is rumored, part of the herbal mélange in Chartreuse); German Jägermeister; Swiss Appenzeller Alpenbitter; Italian sambuca; Dutch Brokmöpke; Bulgarian and Macedonian mastika; Portuguese, Peruvian, and Spanish anísado and Herbs de Majorca; Colombian aguardiente; and Mexican Xtabentún.

Modern Research

Human trials have shown relief of constipation consistent with the historical role of anise in resolving gastrointestinal complaints. A double-blind, randomized study of 107 subjects found that three grams of anise powder after every meal was effective in relieving the symptoms of functional dyspepsia, and a smaller study of 25 subjects in hospice and palliative care found that an aromatherapy treatment using a blend of oils, including anise oil, reduced the symptoms of nausea. A multi-herb decoction of anise, fennel, elderflower (Sambucus nigra, Adoxaceae), and flowers of the stimulant, laxative herb senna (Senna alexandrina, Fabaceae) was found to be a safe and effective treatment for chronic constipation in a small randomized, crossover, placebo-controlled trial.

Human trials have also investigated anise as a therapy for symptoms of menopause, likely due to its phytoestrogen content. A randomized, controlled trial found that 300 mg of an anise extract taken daily was effective at reducing the number and intensity of hot flashes in menopausal women.

Animal studies have investigated anise’s anticonvulsant activity. Anise oil was shown to reduce epileptic seizures and seizure-related brain damage in rats by increasing the time between seizures and decreasing seizure severity. An additional study indicated that the effect on mice was dose-dependent and “more satisfactory” than conventional anti-seizure drug phenobarbital in delaying death.

In vitro tests on anise oil and extract are uncovering new possible medicinal applications. Trans-anethole and its derivatives may help reduce tumor development and progression by blocking the activation of genes involved in inflammation, cell survival, cell proliferation, and blood vessel development. Water and alcohol extracts of anise seeds have been evaluated for antioxidant activity using different antioxidant tests, with both extracts showing strong antioxidant activity. Anise’s antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties indicate that it may have used as a food additive to prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens and spoilage.

Consumer Considerations

Great care should be taken with the internal use of essential oils. Ingestion of one to five milliliters of anise essential oil can cause nausea, vomiting, seizures, and pulmonary edema. However, at low levels, trans-anethole is efficiently broken down by the body. The coumarins present in anise oil may cause photosensitivity in excessive doses. Anise essential oil may also interfere with acetaminophen and caffeine, making these substances less bioavailable in the body and compromising their efficacy. Those with an allergy to anise or other plants in the Apiaceae family (fennel, caraway [Carum carvi], celery [Apium graveolens], coriander [Coriandrum sativum], dill [Anethum graveolens], etc.) should avoid the use of anise.

Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 tablespoon anise seeds [approx. 6.7 grams])

23 calories

1.18 g protein

3.35 g carbohydrate

1.07 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 tablespoon anise seeds [approx. 6.7 grams])

Very good source of:

Iron: 2.48 mg (13.8% DV)

Good source of:

Manganese: 0.15 mg (7.5% DV)

Also, provides:

Calcium: 43 mg (4.3% DV)

Dietary Fiber: 1 g (4% DV)

Phosphorus: 29 mg (2.9% DV)

Magnesium: 11 mg (2.8% DV)

Potassium: 97 mg (2.8% DV)

Vitamin C: 1.4 mg (2.3% DV)

Vitamin B6: 0.04 mg (2% DV)

Thiamin: 0.02 mg (1.3% DV)

Riboflavin: 0.02 mg (1.2% DV)

Niacin: 0.21 mg (1.1% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Citrus Salad with Anise Syrup

Adapted from Gourmet

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons anise seed
  • 5 large ruby red or pink grapefruit
  • 4 blood oranges

Directions:

  1. Dissolve sugar in water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently.
  2. Add anise and simmer five minutes. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, for 30 minutes.
  3. Cut peel, including white pith, from fruit with a sharp knife.
  4. Cut segments free from membranes into a bowl. Squeeze juice from membranes into bowl.
  5. Add anise syrup to fruit and juice and stir gently. Note: Can be made ahead and chilled.
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