Flavor: Lightly sweet and licorice flavored
The benefits of fennel are numerous. But before we go on to discuss its Top Three benefits, let's get to know a bit about the plant first.
Did you know that this tall ornamental plant a vegetable, herb and spice, all in one? Its bulb-like ground-level base is a vegetable. As a herb, it is a hardy, perennial plant [one that can last for more than two seasons] from the umbelliferous [bearing an umbel, an umbrella-shaped cluster of flowers] family that flowers aromatic seeds (spice).
Commonly known as the parsley or carrot family, the umbelliferous includes some popular "spice" plants, namely angelica, anise, asafoetida, caraway, carrot, celery, parsley, centella asiatica, coriander, cumin and dill.
NOTE: In Malay language, jintan manis ('sweet' cumin) is fennel whereas jintan putih ('white' cumin) is cumin. To add further confusion, many people think adas manis (anise or aniseed) is fennel! It's time to clear up the confusion.
Anise vs. Fennel
Though they share a similar taste profile (Italian sausage is noted for being seasoned with fennel and/or anise as the primary seasoning) and they both come from the same family, fennel and anise are different plants. The botanical name of anise is Pimpinella anisum while the botanical name of fennel is Foeniculum vulgare. Fennel's flowers are yellow while anise's flowers are white. Unlike fennel, usually just the seeds from the anise plant that are eaten.
The most well-known benefit of fennel seeds is its calming effect. They are very effective in calming the digestive system often provide quick and effective relief from many digestive disorders.
They can help to overcome bloating, stomach aches, acid indigestion and many other digestive tract maladies. The seeds can be chewed or be taken as a tea decoction [extraction of an active ingredient from a substance by boiling]. In India, the seeds are routinely chewed upon after meals not only to aid in digestion after a rich meal but also serve as a herbal-flavored mouth freshener!
In addition to digestive issues, another common cause of stomach cramp (or abdominal pain) suffered by women is dysmenorrhea [severe pain associated with menstruation].
In 2003, three scientists from India did a comparison between fennel and mefenamic acid, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea on 30 female high school students. The result, both the NSAID and fennel effectively relieved menstrual pain. The difference between the two treatment methods is obvious of course. One is natural albeit being "lower in potency;" and the other is a chemical drug. (link)
Based on the observations of a 2012 Iranian placebo-controlled trial to determine if fennel benefits women suffering from dysmenorrhea, the authors concluded that this spice is "effective for menstrual pain." (link)
If you are a new parent, experiencing baby colic can be disheartening, not to mention stressful! Just imagine, a constantly irritable baby crying inconsolably at 3 a.m. and nothing seems to soothe him or her for more than a few minutes; and to make matter worse for the "sleepy and tired" parents, this episode of crying continues on and on for a couple of days/nights per week, for weeks!
The bad news: the cause for this "colicking" is generally unknown. Here's the good news: according to Laura Riley, MD, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the baby isn't in pain. But that doesn't mean you should allow the crying to continue. Screaming babies and sleepless nights can ruin health and even marriage!
The benefit of fennel seeds works well here. Five Russian researchers at the Department of Pediatrics, St. Petersburg Medical Academy of Postdoctoral Education in Kirochnaya, found "a significant improvement of colic in the (fennel emulsion) treatment group compared with the control group." No side effects were reported during the trial. Conclusion: "Our study suggests that fennel seed oil emulsion is superior to placebo in decreasing intensity of infantile colic." (link)
While attempting to calm your crying baby in the middle of the night, why not provide your heart and blood vessels the benefits of fennel as well. A cup of fennel tea or just chewing a handful of fennel seeds may do the trick. So what's the connection?
All thanks to the high nitrates/nitrites contained in fennel seeds. In collaboration with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a group of researchers from Anna University, Chennai, India, did a study to assess the effect of fennel-derived nitrites on vascular function. (Food sources high in nitrate/nitrite content include celery, Chinese cabbage, endive, fennel, kohlrabi, leek and parsley.)
The potentiality of fennel-derived nitrites on the vascular system was confirmed by by the scientists: "Our study confirmed the functional effects of fennel derived-nitrites [...] that describe the promotion of angiogenesis [formation of blood vessels]; cell migration (below) and vasorelaxation [decrease of vascular (blood vessel) tension]. We also showed that chewing fennel seeds enhanced nitrite content of saliva." (link)
Nitrate, Nitrite and Nitric Oxide (NO)
Nitrate and nitrite are ions comprised of a nitrogen atom; plus three and two oxygen atoms respectively. Generally, the beneficial bacteria in our body can reduce nitrate into nitrite, which is then reduced to nitric oxide (NO), an important signaling
molecule with one each of nitrogen and oxygen atom.
Some Moroccan researchers confirmed the above result. They found that fennel helps lower blood pressure in animals with lab-induced high blood pressure. Their results were published in Clinical and Experimental Hypertension.
In another animal study, Tognolini et al (2007) at Parma University found that anethole, the main component of fennel oil, inhibited platelet [blood compounds involved in clotting] aggregation. (Blood clumping at the wrong place and at the wrong time, for example, in your heart arteries, is deadly!)
But unlike aspirin (if taken in high doses can cause gastrointestinal ulcers, stomach bleeding and tinnitus [persistent noise in ear], anethole does not damage your stomach; in fact, it protects it from damage! (link)
Keep this fennel benefit to heart. At least it will try to help your body keep stroke and heart problems at bay.
Worried about the use of nitrates/nitrites in your bacon and other cured meats? Yes, there are speculations that nitrites, when heated, can form potentially carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. Your fried bacon, for example, has been the biggest target.
Celery powder is used by some food manufacturers as a natural alternative to the dyed pink synthetic sodium nitrites.
As a preservative, sodium nitrate/nitrite (sodium = salt) is used to retard growth of potentially harmful bacteria; increase shell life of the meat; and to improve its texture, color (red looks "fresher" to the eyes) and flavor.
In my view, instead of pointing finger at nitrates/nitrites (or nitrosamines which are not often produced enough to be reproducibly toxic in normal condition), one ought to look at the amount of salt and saturated fat (including oxidized fat when you heat the meat at high temperature) consumed instead. The benefits of fennel and the weight of evidence indicates a beneficial role for nitrates, the natural ones.
NOTE: Garlic is one of the strong contenders for the Spice for Heart Health award.
Another benefit of fennel (leaves and seeds) is it has mucus clearing properties. It helps relieve respiratory tract congestion and decrease secretions. It is, thus, not uncommon to find it in remedies for cough and respiratory inflammatory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis.
Talking about inflammation, nitric oxide's (NO) role as a signalling molecule does induce immune cell migration to the site of injury. By the way, this is a natural process.
It's only when the biochemical balance in the body is way tipped, disruption in the delicate and complex communication amongst immune cells ensue. This "confusion" may cause "oversensitivity" in our immune system; and our confused immune armies may still be "thinking" that war is still ongoing (yes, they have "violated" the ceasefire operation!) Chronic inflammation, therefore, follows suit.
It's not at all surprising to find signalling molecules, such as NO, to have play both the pro-inflammatory as well as protective roles. And our body, in normal condition, "knows" how and when to regulate: 1) the production of NO by; and 2) the signalling effects of NO on the many types of cells involved in immunity and inflammation.
One last tip: To enjoy all the benefits of fennel seed, take it whole, not in "extract" form.
NOTE: A powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, fennel seeds may help tame oxidation and inflammation, the evil twins that cause many chronic diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer's disease [a degenerative disorder that affects the brain and causes dementia], type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) [a group of inflammatory conditions of the colon and small intestine], arthritis and cancer.