A feathery-looking herb native to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, anise is now grown in many parts of the world. The seeds of the anise plant have been used as a spice and natural medicine for thousands of years. Anise seeds are probably best known to Americans for their distinctive licorice flavor, although many other cultures use anise seeds for a wide variety of health benefits.
The anise plant, scientifically called Pimpinella anisum, probably originated in Egypt where it was grown primarily for its small, grayish seeds. Anise seeds are a rich source of anethole, which is a fragrant essential oil. In fact, about 80 percent of anise seed extract is comprised of anethole. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used anise seeds to make scented oils, soaps, teas and even cakes and pastries. Anise seeds were also eaten raw to freshen breath. Over time, the health benefits of consuming anise seeds were realized and they became a folk remedy for a variety of afflictions. Modern analysis of anise seeds shows they are also good sources of most B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, iron, copper, calcium, zinc and some strong antioxidant compounds such as estragole, limonene and pinene.
Anethole and some other compounds in anise seeds display anti-spasmodic and carminative properties -- meaning they either prevent the formation of gas in the gastrointestinal tract or facilitate the expulsion of gas. The seeds are also a good source of dietary fiber, which promotes regular bowel movements and combats constipation.
The essential oils, vitamin C and antioxidants in anise seeds are able to destroy a wide variety of potential pathogens, such as some bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Consequently, anise is used in herbal cough syrups, sore throat remedies, toothpastes, mouthwashes and aromatherapy meant for relieving asthma or nasal congestion. Anise seed extract also works as an expectorant, which stimulates the coughing up of phlegm and mucus. However, anise is not considered a cure for any infectious disease by the medical community, so consult your doctor before attempting to treat any serious condition with anise seeds or related products.
Anise seeds are nutritious, flavorful and can be safely enjoyed, especially if you need some help for your garlic breath. For this reason, many authentic Indian restaurants offer anise seeds after you’ve finished your meal. In fact, some after-dinner liqueurs such as anisette are made from anethole extract. If you commonly experience mild indigestion, flatulence, bloating or intestinal pain after meals, try consuming anise seeds raw or steeped in hot water for symptomatic relief. If your symptoms persist, consult a health professional.
- PDR for Herbal Medicines; PDR Medical Staff
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.