The Chinese first used star anise as a medicine. This dried medicinal herb is a permanent fixture in Asian spice racks. The abundant essential oils and phytochemicals of star anise make it a good digestive aid. It is given to infants, children, and adults to treat wounds, flu, and other inflammatory diseases (1).
However, the safety of star anise in food is an ongoing debate. Read the following sections to find out the benefits and risks of one of the oldest medicinal herbs.
Table Of Contents
What Is Star Anise?
Star anise (Illicium verum) is a small tree native to China and Vietnam. This tree is cultivated throughout Laos, Cambodia, India, the Philippines, and Jamaica. Due to its characteristic shape, it is referred to as baat gok or ba jiao in Chinese, which translates to ‘eight-cornered star’ (1), (2).
This pretty-looking spice imparts a subtle sweet yet spicy taste when added to a dish. Chinese cuisine uses star anise in marinades, blending it with ginger, cassia, and cinnamon (2)
Indians add it to a spice mix called garam masala, which is similar to the allspice mix. This garam masala is used in Northern Indian or Mughlai preparations. The Thai use it in iced teas for its mildly sweet taste (2).
Due to its low toxicity to humans, the Chinese adopted star anise as a medicinal herb. Its extract was suggested to have carminative and diuretic properties. We have compiled scientific evidence for its health benefits. Find them listed in the section below!
How Does Star Anise Benefit Your Health?
Chinese star anise is a carminative and antispasmodic herb. It is said to be effective against gas bloating, influenza, rheumatism, and similar conditions.
1. May Relieve Flatulence and Indigestion
Flatulence, gas, bloated tummy, and fullness are symptoms of indigestion. Approximately, 15-23% of Asians and 15-30% of Americans suffer from flatulence (3).
Traditional medicine in China, Turkey, and Persia uses star anise to aid digestion. This spice relieves stomach spasms caused by gas. It is also given to infants with colic disease (4), (5).
However, the US FDA does not support the use of star anise in infants. The governing body claims that administering star anise brewed tea to infants can trigger vomiting, seizures, and other neurological effects (4).
2. Possesses Antimicrobial Properties
Anethole is the main constituent of essential oils from aromatic plants, including star anise and fennel. It has potent anti-inflammatory activity (8). Having star anise may, therefore, help manage cold, cough, flu, and other microbial infections.
Shikimic acid is another bioactive ingredient extracted from this spice. It was extensively used in antiviral drug formulations. Tamiflu, a common flu medication, has its principal compound (oseltamivir) derived from shikimic acid (9).
3. Anti-Inflammatory Effects
This medicinal spice is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. It inhibits the activation of several pro-inflammatory compounds in your immune system (like TNF-α and IL-1β) (9).
The essential oil of star anise too has an active role to play here. Both the herb and oil control the inflammation in the smooth muscles of your heart (9).
In rat studies, star anise nullified the effect of a high-fat diet. It improved the lipid profile. With such control on cholesterol and inflammation levels, star anise may prevent atherosclerosis, rheumatism, bronchitis, and other inflammatory diseases (9).
4. May Have Chemoprotective Nature
The phytochemicals in star anise demonstrate tumor-suppressive properties. The phenylpropanoids, β-carotene, and phytoquinoids in it are primarily involved in this activity (10).
In rodent studies, this spice extract was administered to liver cancer mouse models. It brought down the liver weight in these subjects. Researchers report that long-term treatment with star anise lowers lipid peroxidation (11).
This spice reduced the tumor burden and oxidative stress in mice. This means it might boost the level of antioxidant enzymes in your body. Hence, adding star anise to your food may help combat cancer.
The chemical composition of star anise is responsible for these health benefits. Find out more in the next section.
What Are The Phytochemicals Present In Star Anise?
Star anise has abundant amounts of sesquiterpenes, phenylpropanoids, and mono-, di-, and triterpenes. Its oil predominantly contains anethole, estragole, foeniculin, limonene, methyl chavicol, linoleic acid, and palmitic acid (10).
Alkanes – including heneicosane, docosane, tricosane, tetracosane, pentacosane, and nonacosane – were also identified in chemical analyses (10). Research is ongoing to identify and isolate other bioactive ingredients in star anise plant parts.
With a powerful biochemical profile and sweet-pungent flavor, star anise can have a permanent place in your spice rack.
Hold that thought!
This spice comes with its share of side effects. The terpenes and alkanes in star anise are linked to acute conditions. However, not all of them are backed by scientific evidence. Learn more about that in the next section.
Is It Safe To Eat Star Anise?
- Irregular heart rate (brachycardia)
- Convulsions or tremors (neurotoxicity)
- Blurry vision
- Involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)
One of the common reasons behind such fatal side effects is contamination/adulteration (13).
Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) is sold along with the Japanese variant (Illicium religiosum). Japanese star anise is a neurotoxic plant, while the Chinese variant is relatively safe (13).
This issue often occurs because both the star anise variants look similar. It is difficult to tell them apart.
Food regulatory bodies across countries should, therefore, have a strict policy to stop contamination. Researchers need to find methods to differentiate between the toxic Japanese and medicinal Chinese varieties.
Another option is to substitute star anise with common anise or fennel. Cloves or ground cinnamon work well too.
Star anise is a medicinal spice extensively used in Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. It works effectively against flatulence, indigestion, cold, cough, flu, and even cancer.
Using it in combination with other spices can enhance the nutritive and medicinal value of foods. However, beware of adulteration. Consult your healthcare provider to find out more about the benefit-to-risk ratio of star anise. Also, note that spices are used in very small amounts for flavor, and their benefits are also imparted in small amounts. Large amount of spices can cause more toxicity.
You can also write your queries about star anise to us. We would appreciate your honest feedback and relevant suggestions. Use the comments section below to reach out to us.
- “Chemical composition and biological activity of star anise…” Journal of Insect Science, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Silk Routes” The International Writing Program, The University of Iowa.
- “Prevention and Treatment of Flatulence From a Traditional” Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Herbs & Spices” UT Extension, Institute of Agriculture, The University of Tennessee.
- “Chemical composition and bioactive properties of…” Research Article, Journal of Chemical, Biological and Physical Sciences, Academia.
- “Antimicrobial properties of star anise (Illicium verum Hook f).” Phytotherapy Research, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Anise oil” Academia.
- “Anethole, a Medicinal Plant Compound, Decreases the Production…” Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Spices and Atherosclerosis” Nutrients, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Star Anise” MAHE Digital Repository, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
- “Anti-oncogenic perspectives of spices/herbs: A comprehensive review” EXCLI Journal, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Analysis of the neurotoxin anisatin in star anise by LC-MS/MS” Food Additives & Contaminants, Taylor & Francis Group, Academia.
- “[Star anise poisoning in infants]” Archives de pediatrie, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
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