20 Sep 2023
From Rome to Royalty: The fennel plant originated in the southern Mediterranean region. To the ancient Romans, it was a symbol of success and fennel leaves were used to crown victors in games. In France, fennel was valued by Emperor Charlemagne, who required its cultivation on all imperial farms. And in 13th-century England, it was considered a royal spice, served to kings with fruit, bread and in dishes such as pickled fish.
Spice, herb or vegetable? Fennel is all three - all parts of the plant are used. Depending on the variety, the bulbous base is eaten like a vegetable, the feathery fronds are used as an herb and the aromatic seeds can be used as a spice and for essential oil extraction. It belongs to the Apiaceae family, alongside cumin, dill, carrot, celery and anise.
A bee favourite! Growing fennel supports the conservation of beneficial insects in ecosystems. The flowers are very attractive to many beneficial insects including bees, small wasps, lacewings and butterflies.
Ancient knowledge: Fennel has a long history of use in traditional medicine for digestive, endocrine and respiratory health. Herbal practitioners use it in women’s health to promote menstruation and facilitate birth. It’s also used to relieve digestive discomfort, such as nausea, low appetite and pain. In many parts of India, it’s common to chew fennel seeds after meals as mukhwas to help digestion and freshen the breath. (Badgujar et al. 2014)
Do scientific studies support these benefits?
In human studies, fennel extract was associated with improved:
Menopausal symptoms: Supplementation with fennel extract improved menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and sleep, as per 2 meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials. (Lee et al. 2021; Khadivzadeh et al. 2018)
Menstrual pain: Fennel extract effectively reduced menstrual pain intensity, according to a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. (Xu et al. 2020)
Osteoarthritis: In a small trial of 66 patients with knee osteoarthritis, fennel seed extract improved knee pain intensity compared to placebo. (Alazadeh et al. 2020)
How much? The studies used capsules with fennel extract, ranging from 120 mg to 800 mg per day.
More to come: There were only a few studies available and they had small sample sizes and methodological concerns. Plus, most research looked at fennel extract in the form of a capsule, so we’re not yet sure how it translates to whole fennel as part of our diet. The investigation continues…
Fennel is a source of:
Demystifying phytoestrogens: Fennel is reported to have estrogen-like activity due to its content of phytoestrogens, such as anethole. They are naturally occurring plant compounds with a similar function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects. Phytoestrogens are linked to various beneficial health effects, such as lower risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, brain function disorders and some cancers. (Noreen et al. 2022; Rietjens et al. 2017)
Why does it taste like anise? Fennel, anise and star anise share the aromatic compound anethole, which gives these plants their similar taste and aroma. It exhibits various beneficial effects in lab studies, such as anticancer activity. (Badgujar et al. 2014)
Around the world, fennel is part of:
😋 5 ways to make the most of fennel
🍽 Recipes for the week