You may know of it as a flavoring agent in sambuca and absinthe, or maybe your grandmother sliced fennel bulb for you as a remedy for gassiness and indigestion. But fennel has actually been used for its nutritious properties since ancient times and it plays an important role in traditional medicine.
In the ancient world, the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians used fennel as part of their ceremonies. It served as a symbol of wellness and pleasure. It has also been valued for its ability to soothe digestive complaints for thousands of years.
Today, this popular vegetable continues to be one of the most widely used herbal plants. Fennel essential oil and all parts of the plant are used for cooking, baking and as medicine for over 40 types of disorders.
With its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-tumor and antispasmodic properties, just to name a few, it’s obvious why fennel has been viewed as a valuable plant for thousands of years.
What Is Fennel?
Fennel is a celery-like winter vegetable with an interesting licorice-like flavor. Although the taste may take some getting used to at first, fennel provides an enormous amount of health benefits.
The plant originated in the Souther Mediterranean region and through cultivation began to grow wild throughout the Northern, Eastern and Western hemispheres.
The scientific name for fennel is Foeniculum vulgare. It’s an ancient perennial herb that has feathery leaves and yellow flowers, looking a bit like dill weed. Fennel is known for its highly aromatic properties, smelling a bit like anise, but with warm and woody undertones. The peak growing season for fennel is autumn and winter.
Fennel is recognized by its white bulb and long green stalks. It is related to other stalk vegetables such as celery and parsnips. The entire fennel plant is edible, including the bulb, seeds, stalk and leaves.
Fennel bulb can be chopped and added to salads, slaws, pasta dishes and more. It adds a crisp and crunchy texture to any dish, and a sweet licorice flavor. The fennel bulb contains a number of phenolic compounds, including bioflavonoids, phenolic acids, tannins, coumarins and hydroxycinnamic acids. (1)
Fennel seeds are rich in flavonoid antioxidants and they contain a concentrated source of micronutrients. Fennel seeds are used to make fennel essential oil, first by crushing them and then using a process called steam distillation.
One average-size fennel bulb contains 73 calories, 3 grams of protein, and 17 grams of carbohydrate. It contains only trace amounts of fat and no cholesterol.
Fennel is exceptionally high in fiber, with each bulb providing 7 grams of dietary fiber or 28 percent of your daily needs. Most people are lacking in fiber intake, consuming only an average of 7 grams per day, therefore adding fennel to your diet could help double your intake!
One bulb also provides 969 milligrams of potassium or 27 percent of the recommended daily amount. Potassium is critical to help lower blood pressure and as well as maintain fluid balance.
Fennel is also high in vitamin C, providing 28 milligrams per bulb or almost half of the recommended daily amount for this critical vitamin. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, which may help slow aging as well as maintain a healthy immune system.
One cup of raw fennel bulb contains approximately: (3)
- 27 calories
- 6 carbohydrates
- 3 grams fiber
- 1 gram protein
- 10 milligrams vitamin C (17 percent DV)
- 360 milligrams potassium (10 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams manganese (8 percent DV)
- 23 micrograms folate (6 percent DV)
- 43 milligrams calcium (4 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligrams iron (4 percent DV)
- 15 milligrams magnesium (4 percent DV)
- 44 milligrams phosphorus (4 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligrams niacin (3 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (3 percent DV)
- 117 IUs vitamin A (2 percent DV)
Top 11 Fennel Benefits
1. Boosts Bone Health
Due to the calcium content, fennel can help maintain bone strength and health. One cup of fennel contains about 43 milligrams of calcium, which can be helpful for those who don’t consume enough foods high in calcium and may have a calcium deficiency. Research shows that increasing calcium intake from dietary sources increases your bone mineral density. (4)
But calcium isn’t the only bone-strengthening nutrient found in the bulb. Fennel also contains magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin K, which all play a role in maintaining bone strength.
2. Improves Skin Health
Fennel is high in vitamin C, providing almost half of the recommended daily allowance in just one bulb. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidantthat may help reduce the free radical damage that can lead to premature aging.
Vitamin C is also necessary for the formation of collagen and a powerful tool in protecting skin’s appearance, making it a good choice to naturally slow aging. A deficiency in vitamin C is called scurvy, which manifests in the inability to properly form collagen, leading to bleeding gums and bleeding below the skin. (5)
Due to these functions, adequate intakes of vitamin C are critical for reducing the appearance of wrinkles and maintaining healthy skin. The RDA is 60 milligrams per day, but more vitamin C from whole food sources, like fennel, will help to keep your skin healthy from the inside-out.
3. Lowers Blood Pressure
Fennel can help lower blood pressure and inflammation due to its high potassium content and low sodium content. Potassium works against sodium, helping to fight high blood pressure in the body.
A diet high in potassium can reduce systolic blood pressure by 5.5 points when compared to a high sodium diet. But don’t expect lower blood pressure overnight, it takes about four weeks of consuming a high potassium diet to see a drop in blood pressure. (6, 7)
4. Aids Digestion
Fennel is included in the GAPS diet, as well as on my Healing Food Shopping List, because of its ability to ease digestion. Since fennel contains 7 grams of dietary fiber, it can help maintain a healthy digestive system. The muscles in the digestive system need dietary fiber to provide bulk for the gastrointestinal muscles to push against and increase motility or movement. Because digestive problems like constipation and IBS are so common in adults, fennel makes a great addition to any diet, which is exactly why it’s one of foods recommended for a healing diet.
Additionally, fiber acts like a small brush as it moves through the digestive system, clearing the colon of toxins that could potentially cause colon cancer. Fennel itself can act like a laxative, helping with elimination of toxins.
Research published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition indicates that fennel has a substantial body of data to support its digestion-enhancing activities. Researchers also point out ginger, peppermint, citrus fruits, dandelion and chamomile for their ability to aid digestion as well. (8)
It is also common in certain cultures to chew fennel seeds after meals to help digestion and eliminate bad breath. Some of the oils found in fennel do help stimulate the secretion of digestive juices. (9)
Fennel may also be beneficial for people with acid reflux. Adding fennel to your diet can help balance the pH level within your body, especially within your stomach, and can reduce reflux after meals.
5. Increases Satiety
Fiber contains no calories, but provides bulk, increasing satiety. Humans do not have the enzymes required to break down fiber, therefore it cannot be absorbed as calories. Fennel provides 7 grams of calorie-free, filling fiber.
Studies show that diets high in fiber can help people to effectively lose weight. A 2001 study, found that participants who added 14 grams per day of fiber to their diets, without changing anything else, ate approximately 10 percent fewer calories per day and lost about four pounds over a period of four months. Increasing fiber intake, by adding fennel and other high fiber foods to the diet, may be a simple way to effortlessly feel more satisfied and to experience weight loss. (10)
6. Improves Colic
Infant colic, although a relatively benign medical condition, can have a significant impact on new parents. Most parents of a colicky infant would probably try almost anything to soothe their crying child.
The current medication used for colic, called Dicyclomine hydrochloride, can have some serious side effects and may not be consistently effective. But researchers have found that fennel seed oil has been shown to reduce pain and increase motility in the small intestine, making it can excellent natural remedy for colic.Fennel also helps to calm the infant and reduce abdominal distension.
In a 2003 study, researchers compared fennel seed oil with a placebo in 125 infants. The group treated with fennel seed oil was reported to have 65 percent less colic, measured by crying episodes, than those in the control group, with no side effects.
Although this research may be promising and many desperate parents may want to run out and get some fennel oil, there is not an established safe dose for infants at this time. The safest way to use it to treat infant colic is for a breastfeeding mother to drink fennel tea. (11, 12)
7. Helps Prevent Cancer
Fennel has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to help treat inflammatory conditions such as insect bites or sore throat. Fennel’s ability to decrease inflammation led researchers to investigate if fennel’s properties could be applied to other inflammatory diseases, including various forms of cancers.
Fennel contains an oil called anethole that has been shown in some clinical studies to act as a natural cancer remedy, helping to reducing the growth of breast cancer cells. It is believed that anethole reduces inflammation that may lead to the development of cancer, although further research is needed to determine how it can be used exactly. (13)
Other anti-inflammatory nutrients are also found in fennel, specifically selenium, a trace mineral that may help decrease cancer mortality rates. A large study of over 8,000 participants found that selenium did reduce mortality and decrease future incidences of cancer. (14)
8. Decreases Risk of Heart Disease
Foods high in fiber, especially soluble fiber, as is found in fennel, have been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. A diet high in fiber can help to reduce the overall risk of heart attacks and stroke by helping to lower blood cholesterol to a normal level.
In 2018, a study published in the Journal of Menopausal Medicine found that when postmenopausal women used fennel to improve their cholesterol, it resulted in a slight positive change in LDL and HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. (15)
The high fiber and the potassium content make fennel a double whammy in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering both cholesterol and blood pressure. Fennel is also high in other potentially cardio-protective vitamins such as folate and vitamin C.
9. Eye Health
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of age-related vision loss. Although the exact cause is unknown, antioxidants that help reduce inflammation such as certain flavonoids, vitamin C and zinc, may help improve vision or slow the progress of the disease.
Fennel contains many of these vision-saving nutrients. Due to its high flavonoid, vitamin C and mineral content, it can help reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, and may help prevent macular degeneration. (16)
10. May Ease Menopausal Symptoms
A 2017 study in Menopause suggests that the use of fennel, a phytoestrogen, may contribute to improvements in menopausal symptoms. Researchers analyzed 90 women, ages 45 to 60, who had been postmenopausal for at least one year (no more than five years) and had at least moderate menopausal symptoms. Participants either received fennel or placebo capsules daily for eight weeks.
Fennel recipients saw significant improvements in symptoms, whereas placebo recipients did not. Researchers conclude that fennel may help ease menopausal symptoms in women with low estrogen levels as well as those who have experienced early menopause or have had a hysterectomy or oophorectomy. A larger trial, however, is needed to confirm these findings. (17)
And a 2018 systematic and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Menopausal Medicine found that when fennel is used to relieve menopausal symptoms, it helps to reduce vaginal itching, dryness, sleeping issues, and vasomotor symptoms like night sweats, flushes and hot flashes. Fennel also helped to improve sexual function and sexual satisfaction. (18)
11. Stimulates Breastmilk Production
Fennel is used as a galactagogue agent for women who are breastfeeding. Galactagogues increase the production of breast milk. Although the research on whether or not fennel is effective for promoting the production of breast milk, studies have found that many women who do choose to use herbs as natural galactagogues tend to try fennel, milk thistle and goat’s rue most often. (19)
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Fennel has been used in many cultures for its medicinal properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to help with a variety of ailments from congestion to helping increase the flow of breast milk. It can also help with stomach upset, insect bites, or to soothe a sore throat.
Fennel is valued in Ayurvedic medicine because of its warming properties. It’s thought to help balance all of the body types, including vata, pitta and kapha. It’s considered nourishing to the eyes and brain, and known to relieve digestive complaints, like gassiness.
The herbal plant is also used in other traditional systems of medicine, including Unani, Siddha, Indian and Iranian systems.
In traditional medicine, fennel is used to treat a range of ailments, from simple issues like the common cold and cough, to more complicated conditions like cancer, arthritis, colic, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, liver pain and kidney issues. (20)
Fennel vs. Anise vs. Licorice
- Fennel is a plant in the carrot and celery family. It tastes similar to anise and is also highly aromatic.
- Fennel, star anise and anise seed all contain anethole, an aromatic compound that’s believed to fight off cancer, inflammation and diabetes.
- Fennel has been used as medicine for thousands of years. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Like anise and licorice, fennel is also used to fight bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
- Anise is used as a spice to add flavor to a variety of dishes. Star anise and anise seed are two different spices that come from different plant families. However, they have similar flavor profiles because they both contain anethole.
- Like fennel and licorice, anise seed and star anise have a strong aroma, and their taste is often described as sweet and licorice-like.
- Anise seed is known for its ability to fight bacterial and fungal infections, regulate blood sugar levels, boost heart health, relieve symptoms of depression and ease menopause symptoms.
- Licorice root is an adaptogen herb that’s used in Chinese medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Licorice is a member of the legume family and like fennel, it contains powerful flavonoids that are rich in antioxidants.
- Like fennel and anise, licorice helps to ease digestive issues and relieve female reproductive issues, including PMS and menopause. Licorice is also helpful for people struggling with respiratory conditions, leaky gut and adrenal fatigue.
How to Choose and Prepare
Fennel has a crunchy texture and a flavor similar to licorice or anise. It is a great addition to any winter dish to provide a unique, slightly sweet and warming flavor.
When choosing a fennel bulb, look for a bulb that is firm and mostly white at the bottom. Avoid bulbs that are brown or spotted at the bottom. The stalks should be bundled together and not flowering.
The fennel bulb can stay in the refrigerator for about four to five days. It tends to lose flavor over time, therefore should be eaten within a few days.
All parts of the fennel bulb can be eaten, including the seeds, leaves and the bulb itself. The seeds are commonly dried and used as a spice.
To prepare the fennel bulb, first cut the stalks off the bulb where they sprout. Then slice the bulb vertically into thin slices depending on the recipe you choose. You can eat fennel bulb raw, you can sauté it or roast it with other vegetables.
Want to try out fennel for dinner tonight?
Then say hello to fennel with this delicious soup recipe! With the slight sweetness of apples and the amazing nutrition of fennel, your whole family will be coming back for seconds!
Fennel Apple Soup Recipe
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 (medium to large) fennel bulbs stems removed and diced
- 2 large apples, peeled, cored and diced
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 2-3 sprigs thyme
- Heat coconut oil in a large pot.
- Saute onion over low or medium heat for 10-15 minutes until soft and almost browned.
- Add fennel and apples and cook for 5-10 minutes until they start to soften or brown.
- Add chicken stock and thyme.
- Puree soup in a high-powered blender until smooth and creamy.
This root vegetable originated in the Mediterranean countries of Greece and Italy, but is now grown in many different countries including the U.S., France, India and Russia. It is commonly harvested in the fall and usually shows up traditionally in fall or winter recipes.
Fennel has a rich history of use because of its many nutritious properties. Since the time of Hippocrates, it was used as medicine. The Romans thought of fennel as a sacred ritual object and they used it as a digestive stimulant. The Greeks would use fennel during their ceremonies because it symbolized pleasure and prosperity. And the ancient Chinese and Egyptians used the vegetable as food and medicine.
For centuries, fennel has been used in various Mediterranean countries for cooking and baking. It was even added to loaves of bread for added flavor and to make it easier to digest.
In North America, fennel was used by the Cherokees in the same ways that the root vegetable is used today. It would calm digestive issues in infants and was also given to mothers during childbirth. It was also used as part of an eyewash to promote eye health.
Fennel is also used to make absinthe, an alcohol beverage that’s very high in alcohol (45 to 74 percent ABV) and known for its natural green color. Absinthe is made with medicinal and culinary herbs, including anise and fennel. It originated in Switzerland in the late 18th century and is known for its hallucinogenic properties. Today, absinthe is not allowed to be sold in bars and liquid stores.
Risks and Side Effects
Although for most people fennel is a great, healthy vegetable choice, people with certain medical conditions may have to limit or avoid the consumption of fennel. Some people may be allergic to certain spices, therefore should avoid consuming fennel seeds.
Due to the high potassium content, those with kidney disease should limit the amount of fennel they eat. People taking beta-blockers, which is typically prescribed to help control blood pressure, can also have elevated potassium levels and may need to avoid fennel. (21)
- Fennel has the botanical name Foeniculum vulgare. It’s a traditional and popular herb with a very long history of medicine use in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
- The entire fennel plant can be consumed, including the bulb, leaves and seeds. Fennel is known for its anise- and licorice-like flavor.
- Fennel health benefits that are supposed with research include its ability to boost cardiovascular health, improve your skin, aid digestion, increase satiety, relieve colic in infants, prevent cancer, improve eye health and ease menopausal symptoms.