Star anise

Category: Food



Introduction and description


lllicium verum is a medium-sized native evergreen tree of northeast Vietnam and southwest China.

A spice commonly called star anise, star anise seed, or Chinese star anise that closely resembles anise in flavour is obtained from the star-shaped pericarp of the fruit of Illicium velum which are harvested just before ripening.

Star anise contains anethole, the same ingredient that gives the unrelated anise its flavor.

We had always thought it was anise itself that was used in the production of drinks like Pastis, but here is a quote:


Recently, star anise has come into use in the West as a less expensive substitute for anise in baking, as well as in liquor production, most distinctively in the production of the liquor Galliano. It is also used in the production of sambuca, pastis, and many types of absinthe.  

Star anise is actually more expensive than anise, thus the accuracy of the above is in question.  Anise and not star anise is used as the spice in preparation of biryani and masala chai, in Indian cuisine and it is anise that is used in garam masala.

Star anise is, however, used extensively in Chinese cuisine,  It is widely grown for commercial use in China and most other countries in the far east of Asia. Star anise is an ingredient of the traditional five-spice powder of Chinese cooking. It is also a major ingredient in the making of phở, a Vietnamese noodle soup.

A warning

Illicium anisatum

Star anise has been used traditionally to help in adult indigestion and flatulence.  But, the use has been extended and star anise tea is now sometimes given in various cultures for the treatment of infant colic pains.  Here there have been some very serious problems and a warning needs to be given.

Several publications have reported cases of infants presenting with ”neurological and gastrointestinal symptoms” after ingestion of star anise tea.  After some investigation, the medical staff have managed to ascertain that the cause of the intoxication was contamination of Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) by Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum).

the plants all look very alike ..........

Illicium anisatum, also known as Shikimi, is highly toxic, it contains potent neurotoxins (anisatin, neoanisatin, and pseudoanisatin), which are non-competitive antagonists of GABA receptors. To make matters worse, there is also a poisonous star anise (I. lanceolatum A. C. Smith), which contains several neurotoxic sesquiterpenes.   I. religiosum is also poisonous. Both these have been found contaminating the true star anise Ilium verum.  The explanation given by researchers for the contamination is ‘the strong macroscopic resemblance of the substances’, as well as the fact that the fruits are often sold partially broken or in ground form.  In other words there is a risk in buying star anise in ground form or from casual unmonitored sources.  This risk is there for adults as well as children, but presumably the adults manage to come off relatively unscathed and do not seek medical help whereas the children become very very ill.

Hepatic failure due to the consumption of anise herb elaborated infusions is presented as an exceptional finding in our environment. A case of a 4-month-old infant with hypertransaminasemia, severe coagulopathy, non ketotic hypoglycemia, moderated metabolic acidosis and neurologic symptoms such as seizures and nistagmus is described. After discarding infectious, metabolic and autoimmune etiology and through a meticulous anamnesis, the family referred having administered in the last two months a daily star anise and green anise (Pimpinella anisum) infusion to the patient. It is important to emphasize the serious risk of administering homemade herb infusions to infants.  PMID:  26875753

...... star anise

Interestingly, there is little evidence to support its use for colic or indigestion.  According to Dr Duke’s analysis only linalool is anticolic and linalool is to be found in many other much safer foods including dill, mint, oregano and celery!  Anethole is a digestive, but then this too is found in dill, tarragon, fennel and so on.

Medical uses

We have provided Dr Duke’s analysis for ease of reference, but a more up-to-date analysis is best obtained from his site.  The fruit of Illicium verum Hook. f. (Chinese star anise) has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and food industry with the actions of ‘dispelling cold, regulating the flow of Qi and relieving pain’.

Traditional uses of I. verum are recorded throughout Asia and Northern America, where it has been used for a number of disorders.   This said it contains two potentially toxic chemicals Anisatin and CIS-Anethole, as such even Illium verum needs to be treated with great respect.  Dr Duke does not waste words in his analysis – ANISATIN is a poison.

There are also a number of chemicals that have anti Acetylcholinesterase activity.  AChE is an enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of acetylcholine and of some other choline esters that function as neurotransmitters. AChE is found at mainly neuromuscular junctions and in chemical synapses of the cholinergic type, where its activity serves to terminate synaptic transmission. It is the primary target of inhibition by organophosphorus compounds such as nerve agents and pesticides, so one can see that at high doses star anise could be dangerous.

Where star anise appears to exert its activity is via its antibacterial and antiseptic activity, including action against such bacteria as staphylococcus.

It also appears to be a reasonable anti-viral [flu, herpes, HIV, pneumonia,  etc] via a group of chemicals found in other plants, but here clustered together - ALPHA-PINENE, BETA-BISABOLENE,  BETA-SITOSTEROL, KAEMPFEROL-3-O-GLUCOSIDE, LIMONENE, LINALOOL, P-CYMENE, PROANTHOCYANIDINS, RUTIN, STIGMASTEROL, TANNIN

It has a number of chemicals that help with dental caries and plaque.  And activity against malaria via HYDROQUINONE and RUTIN.

Star anise is also a general fungicide via chemicals such as 1,8-CINEOLE, ALPHA-PHELLANDRENE, ANETHOLE, BETA-PHELLANDRENE, CARYOPHYLLENE, LINALOOL, MYRCENE, P-ANISALDEHYDE, P-CYMENE, TERPINEN-4-OL, TERPINOLENE.  And it has some useful activity against Candidiasis which is an extremely dangerous fungal infection, superficially causing thrush, but in reality causing a host of very dangerous diseases.  Here it exerts this activity via 1,8-CINEOLE, ANETHOLE, BETA-PINENE, BETA-SITOSTEROL, CARYOPHYLLENE, CARVONE, LIMONENE and LINALOOL. 

Many other activities are exerted through chemicals found in many other foods, for example, it has chemicals that are anticancer [breast, cervix, gastric, lung]  but these – limonene, rutin, tannin etc are all found in things like lemons and tea!

The presence of Tannin means it is also a chelator.

Other uses

Star Anise has numerous chemicals that make it a natural insecticide and insectifuge.  It is, for example a nematicide - a type of chemical pesticide used to kill plant-parasitic nematodes.  It is a termiticide, can repel termites.  Although we may eat it for its flavour, in the long run, we may be missing one of its principal actions – that of preventive medicine not via ingestion, but by simply using it as a insect repellent.   In this one would have to be quite careful as it is also a transdermal  ‘relating to or denoting the application of a medicine or drug through the skin, so that it is absorbed slowly into the body’.




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