Fennel and anise are both from the parsley family (the Apiaceae family) along with caraway, carrots, celery, licorice, and tarragon. They have comparable medicinal properties and similar flavors, so what’s the difference? Fennel vs. anise: we’ll explain the distinctions between the two, the health benefits they share, and great ways to include both in your diet.
What Is Fennel?
Florence fennel, aka Foeniculum vulgare (or finocchio in Italian), is a medicinal flowering plant with feathery leaves that is often eaten as a vegetable. Its seeds and the fennel bulb both have a licorice-like flavor, and all aspects of fresh fennel are edible, from its bulb to its fronds to its seeds. Fennel is highly prized for its essential oil, which is antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory.
What Is Anise?
Licorice-flavor anise, otherwise known as Pimpinella anisum or aniseed, is a flowering bush native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Similar to (but a different plant from) star anise, the anise plant also has medicinal uses. As for their culinary uses, anise seeds are flavoring meals all over the world, including biscotti cookies, Italian sausage and marinara recipes, Norwegian breads, Asian cuisines, delicious liqueurs and more).
Fennel vs. Anise
Both of these plants have a black licorice flavor and contain the essential oil anethole in their seeds, and yet they are different entities.
- Anise: Anise is more pungent and lends a heavier flavor that goes well in Indian dishes and Chinese Five Spice Powder.
- Fennel: This plant isn’t as sweet or pungent, but you can use fennel seed in place of anise in a pinch if the recipe calls for one and all you have access to is the other.
Fennel and Anise: Health Benefits
Despite their differences, fennel and anise seeds have a similar flavor and health benefits. Let’s explore these benefits with scientific backing.
While normal inflammation in response to an injury is good, excess and chronic inflammation is harmful. Fennel and fennel seeds contain the antioxidant anethole, a plant compound that has been shown to help defend against free radicals, viruses, and certain cancers. Anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and neuroprotective, this compound has also been studied in anise seeds.
An animal study with anise seed oil, for example, showed it has the ability to reduce the pain and swelling associated with inflammation, which is a natural and proven benefit that comes from antioxidants like anethole.
2. Blood Sugar Control
Fennel seeds and bulbs are rich with manganese, necessary for bone health, wound healing, and blood sugar regulation. Anethole derived from both of these plants has been shown to help improve blood sugar levels and enhance the production of insulin in the pancreas. Blood sugar regulation is important when it comes to reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, and it’s even more important for those who are diabetic when it comes staying healthy.
These studies were conducted on concentrated anethole in animal models, and more research is needed to examine human responses to this powerful compound. While funding is unfortunately in short supply when it comes to natural healing aids, these early findings are incredibly promising.
Fennel extract has been shown to inhibit harmful bacteria growth, including the proliferation of strains of Candida albicans, Escherichia coli, and Staphylococcus aureus. Likewise anise seed also possesses antimicrobial abilities, blocking the growth of bacteria and fungi, including the strain of bacteria that causes cholera. Preventing the growth of opportunistic and destructive infections is wildly important when it comes to preserving your good health.
4. Women’s Health
Studies have found that fennel can help breastfeeding women increase milk volume and milk fat content (needed for healthy infant weight gain). Breastfeeding women who drink fennel tea have been shown to have babies with larger head circumferences and better digestive health. Fennel has also been shown to help increase milk secretion for those who want to continue breastfeeding as much and as long as possible.
Meanwhile anise seed has been studied in relation to menopause and has been shown to help reduce many unpleasant symptoms of the transition due to its ability to mimic estrogen. This 4-week study from 2012 showed that women who took anise seed supplements had a 75% reduction in hot flashes. Anise may even help prevent bone loss and the development of osteoporosis in older women.
5. Heart Health
The anti-inflammatory powers of anise have been shown to lower risk factors for heart disease, and fennel has been found to reduce heart disease risk by 9% due in part to its levels of calcium, potassium, and magnesium (all vital nutrients for heart health). Unchecked inflammation can help cause and exacerbate many chronic cardiovascular conditions, and both of these plants have anti-inflammatory effects that may help.
The active ingredient in anise and fennel has been shown to help fight cancer. Anethole has demonstrated scientific promise in suppressing breast cancer cells and promoting cancer cell death on multiple occasions, and it’s also been linked to protecting against liver cancer. Human studies are still required, but these promising effects could make a difference in the fight against various types of cancer.
Food for Health
Anise plants and fennel look very similar in their vegetable forms, and they are sometimes mistakenly labeled and sold as one another, so keep your eyes peeled in the grocery store. If you’re interested in supplementing with anethole you can, but you can also just include these two powerful plants in your diet. Here are some simple recipes for each to get you started!
Florence fennel is sweetish and crunchy, and can be added to a salad, braised, grilled or baked, as in this delicious recipe from Giada De Laurentiis at the Food Network for Roasted Fennel with Parmesan.
Anise Seed Cookies
Anna Hezel’s Aunt Clara’s Anise Seed Cookies recipe at Food52 is a warm and tasty way to get the health benefits of anise seed in a simple cookie recipe. Most Americans do not get enough seeds in their diet, and this is an excellent way to help fix that.
Final Thoughts on Fennel and Anise
These plants have proven health benefits thanks to the plant compounds they share in common, and you can gain those benefits just from cooking with them. Anise seeds can be used to spice many dishes, while fennel is even more versatile, and can be eaten as a vegetable, seed, or powdered spice. Don’t be afraid to get creative, because you can’t go wrong with either one. After all, why choose between fennel vs. anise when they both have such amazing health benefits?