Fennel Seed: Sweet Licorice-Like Spice

The fennel seed is the fruit of the fennel plant, which belongs to the parsley family. Its taste is similar to that of aniseed and the two are often confused with each other as a result. Fennel seeds are oval-shaped and have grooves. They are yellowish-brown or yellowish-green in color once dried.

The fennel plant is native to southern Europe and its name comes from the Greek for “marathon.” This is because the battle at Marathon took place in a field of fennel. 

The Romans cultivated fennel for the seeds as well as for the plant itself, which can be eaten as a vegetable. The Latin word for fennel is Foeniculum, which eventually evolved into “fennel.” Roman Author Pliny had so much respect for the herb that it was included in his remedies for 22 different conditions.

It was brought to the United States by Puritans who chewed on the seeds as a means of staving off hunger. 

Fennel Seed Substitute

Fennel seed flavor profile

The flavor of fennel seed can be described as warm and sweet. It is similar to that of aniseed in that both are reminiscent of licorice. The similarity in flavors is mainly because both contain a chemical called anethole. However, fennel seeds are sweeter and somewhat less pungent when compared to anise seeds.

Health benefits of fennel seeds

Fennel seeds have included in medicines for centuries, including those used by Pliny. For example, they were used in India and China to cure snakebites. Here are some of the more recently discovered benefits:

  • Recent studies have discovered antioxidant compounds in fennel seeds that may provide protection from certain types of cancer. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that fennel seeds inhibited liver cancer cells and that they increased the activity of certain antioxidant enzymes in the liver.
  • Fennel seeds may also contain compounds that improve circulation. Researchers have found that fennel seeds help with the dilation of blood vessels. They may lower pressure in the eyes by as much as 31 percent and may thus be helpful in treating glaucoma.
  • Fennel seeds may also help with the prevention of osteoporosis. One study has found that 30 milligrams per kilogram of body weight has prevented bone degradation when compared to a control group that was not given fennel seed.
  • Research suggests that colitis may be eased by taking fennel along with other herbs like St John’s word and dandelion.

Common uses of fennel seed

Fennel seeds are traditionally used in both savory and sweet dishes and may be added crushed or whole.

Fennel seed is one of the main ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder and is arguably the most easily identified ingredient in that spice mix. As it is native to the Mediterranean region, it is included in a variety of dishes ranging from pizza and pasta sauces to Italian sausage. It is also used in many Indian curries and is considered to be an excellent complement for fish.

In India and Pakistan, fennel seeds are often roasted and served after a meal to freshen breath.