Star anise is an aromatic plant widely used in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and personal care and hygiene products industries . In the food sector it is widely used in liquor, in the confectionery industry, in pastry and in the formulation of some herbal teas.
It has very limited use in European and Western domestic cooking in general. Instead, Asian and Oriental cuisine considers the aromatic fruit and its essential oil a fundamental ingredient of the aromatic base of many condiments and as a constituent of many dishes with an exotic flavor. The properties of star anise are linked to a set of compounds, the main one being anethole .
Outside its homeland, despite Chinese cuisine having settled in the most remote corners of the earth, this spice has never established itself as many other spices have. The essential oil, extracted from the fruit with the steam distillation technique, is an important substitute for European green anise .
Star anise: what it is
When we speak generically of anise it should be borne in mind that we often refer to the aromatic essence conferred by an oily and intensely perfumed aromatic compound called anethole that unites many plants that do not have the same origin and that can also be very distant from the point of view botanist.
Anise, the one historically known to Europeans, is the “ Pimpinella anisum L. ”, a plant that produces aromatic achenes (seeds) and is native to the Middle East.
Fennel seeds also contain anethole and can be interchangeable with anise, although the former are less sweet.
One of the most important aromatic plants dominated by anethole is star anise , also called Badiana, classified as a botanical species with the name “ Illicium verum Hook.f.”.
Nutritional values of star anise
Its chemical composition is not relevant from a nutritional point of view , taking into account the very small quantities that are usually used in nutrition.
The value of this fruit lies in the medicinal properties of its compounds which, even in small doses, have beneficial effects on the well-being of the body.
Star anise is a source of calcium, iron, sodium, vitamin C and contains some polyphenols, including flavonols (quercetin and kaempferol), anthocyanins and catechetical tannin.
The most interesting feature is the presence in star anise of essential oil (between 8% and 12% in the dried fruit) in which a wide range of compounds has been identified.
It is a colorless essential oil consisting of a complex mixture of volatile substances. In the case of star anise, ethers and epoxides prevail.
The 18 main molecules are represented in the table . The trans-anethole is absolutely preponderant, followed by interesting quantities of:
Many of these substances, despite being in different concentrations, perform specific functions.
Essential oils of star anise
There are two important aspects that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to essential oils:
- complexity of their composition (just think that the table shows only the first 18 of the more than 100 molecules found)
These two aspects mean that there are different chemotypes of essential oils. By chemotypes of essential oils we mean essential oils that are morphologically identical but with different chemical compositions.
Instead, the variability of plants may be due to environmental adaptations and the agricultural practices they undergo, such as cultivation, harvesting and drying.
Therefore, it is not difficult to come across chemical analyzes with very different results. In general, however, the gas chromatography analyzes conducted on the essential oils of star anise have highlighted the significant presence of:
- methyl – cavicolo
- anisic aldehyde.
Furthermore, star anise is an important source of organic acids, such as gallic acid and, above all, shikimic acid .
This acid proved to be one of the main ingredients in the formulation of the drug useful in the fight against the avian flu virus.
Star anise and avian flu
In 2005, star anise jumped to the headlines and recorded a strong increase in demand on the market , resulting in a sudden price increase and a rapid absorption of its stocks.
The phenomenon was caused by the flu epidemic nicknamed “avian” and by the discovery that the starting molecule for producing the substance called Oseltamivir capable of eradicating the disease is shikimic acid, abundantly present in star anise .
Oseltamivir is the active ingredient contained in the drug Tamiflu®, the vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company Roche of which many European states, including Italy, made abundant supplies. Fortunately, the shikimic acid molecule was subsequently reproduced with the help of strains of transgenic bacteria of Escherichia coli, as is already done with insulin and many other substances valuable for the pharmaceutical industry .
Health benefits of star anise
Traditional oriental medicine before all the others was able to observe and discover the effects produced by star anise on human health.
Antimicrobial and antiviral activity
Some studies indicate the possibility of using star anise extract as a bactericide due to the very effective action exerted by anethole in the fight against many intestinal pathogenic bacteria such as:
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Yersinia enterocolica
- Enteroccoccus faecalis.
This activity can be combined with the simultaneous use of traditional antibiotic therapy , allowing the improvement of the antibacterial performance of drugs. The antimicrobial action has also been observed in the case of tuberculosis, interfering in some metabolic pathways of the mycobacterium.
Another specific research noted that anethole showed potent antibacterial activity against all strains of Vibrio cholerae (Cholera) which have developed worrying resistance to multiple commonly used antimicrobial agents and drugs.
The antiviral activity of star anise extract was investigated in a study showing that derivatives of the fruit possess a much higher efficacy than that of other extracts and essential oils examined.
In particular, research has shown that essential oil interferes with the virion envelope structure or can mask the viral compounds needed for viral uptake and thus inhibits the virulence of the virus.
Another study compared the inhibitory effect of star anise essential oil against HSV-1 or Herpes simplex infection (which is the herpes labialis virus) with their antiviral potential of phenylpropanoids and sesquiterpenes, demonstrating high levels of antiviral activity.
Building on the experience gained from traditional Chinese medicine in using Illicium verum for the treatment of skin inflammation, rheumatism, asthma and bronchitis, a study examined the anti-inflammatory effects of star anise extract in some cell lines.
Research has observed that the extract exerts anti-inflammatory effects suggesting that this may be a useful therapeutic candidate for inflammatory skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis.
Furthermore, the essential oil, added to a normal oral hygiene mouthwash, can greatly relieve inflammation in the mucous membranes and gums of the mouth.
Star anise: antioxidant action
As usually happens in plants that demonstrate a strong anti-inflammatory action, the extract also has antioxidant properties. In this regard, the studies have investigated the action of the polyphenols of which this spice is rich in the reduction of oxidative stress.
Therefore, at low dosage it exerts its beneficial antioxidant action by protecting the cellular tissues of our body.
Purifying and diuretic properties
Due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory action, if taken in doses that are not excessive, it has a positive diuretic effect, acting as a stimulus for the kidneys in eliminating excess fluids and, through them, in eliminating waste.
In addition, it acts against the liver by facilitating its purifying action from the accumulation of toxins in the blood , especially after periods of taking drugs that have overloaded this organ , or simply after the abuse of substances such as alcohol or after food indigestion.
Cough suppressant and mucus expectorant
The anti-inflammatory properties of star anise and in particular of its essential oil prove to be of considerable help as cough relievers and as promoting agents of an expectorant action of the mucus from the respiratory tract .
Contraindications of star anise
If correctly taken, without exceeding the doses, star anise does not give rise to particular side effects and has no contraindications, except for rare and occasional allergic reactions in sensitive subjects, which could occur in the skin, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal tract. In case of allergy to green anise and anethole it is preferable to refrain from consumption.
However, in high doses it can be toxic with narcotic effects that can lead to delirium with convulsions.
It should be borne in mind that in nature there is a species of star anise very similar to Illicium verum. This species of Japanese origin is Illicium anisatum, which is not edible as it is neurotoxic and which can generate serious neurological and gastrointestinal consequences, as well as convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting .
Therefore, always make sure of the origin and variety of anise you want to consume.
How to store star anise
Its aromatic component is contained in the essential oil of the fruit, especially in the seed found in each of the arms (generally eight) which together form the characteristic “star” from which the plant takes its name . This essential oil is composed of highly volatile substances.
Therefore, to prevent its essential oil from dispersing, it is preferable to use the whole dried fruit and keep it in airtight containers and avoid buying the spice already ground as it may not have the expected aromatic charge or it could disperse in a short time. time.
Star anise is used in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and personal care and hygiene products industries.
It is also a tobacco flavoring.
Star anise is used in agriculture as a natural insecticide . The essential oil would be effective in warding off many parasites and insects harmful to some crops. Even at home, it can be used for this purpose against moths and insects that nest in natural fabrics such as:
- cashmere, etc.
Just pulverize some fruit and collect it in cloth or veil bags to put in the cupboards or drawers. In this way, the essence that will protect the clothes and fabrics will spread, also releasing a very pleasant delicate fragrance.
The dried fruit and essential oil can commonly be found for sale in health food stores or markets that are well stocked or specialized in the sale of spices.
The role of star anise in herbal tea is important, which entrusts many of its infusions to its aroma and beneficial effects.
How to use and uses in the kitchen
In the food sector it is widely used in the confectionery industry, in pastry and bakery products. But also in the formulation of some herbal teas and in liqueurs, for the production of alcoholic beverages such as:
- triple anise
- pin, etc.
In European and Western domestic cooking in general it is used very little. Instead, Asian and Oriental cuisine considers the aromatic fruit and its essential oil a fundamental ingredient of the aromatic base of many condiments and as a constituent of many dishes with an exotic flavor.
It is usually found mixed with other spices . The most common formula is the one with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and pepper, called Wu xiang fen, which accompanies Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine in many of its expressions, such as the lacquering of the meats, and to flavor Cantonese dim sum cuisine with its variety of light dishes to serve with tea .
In India it is very popular in Kerala curry blends, for seafood, or in tropical fruit salads. Added to fruit in fruit salad it gives a fresh and inviting scent. In some cakes, the aroma enhances the fragrance and sweetness.
Star anise black tea with vanilla and cherries
Ingredients for 2 people
Total calories: 65 / calories per person: 32
- 450 ml of water
- 2 black tea bags
- 100 g cherries
- 1 vanilla pod
- 4 star anise berries.
Bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat and dip the tea bags, following the times indicated on the package (about 3-4 minutes).
Discard the tea bags, dip the star anise berries in and steep until cool.
When cold, remove the pit from the cherries. Dip the cherries in the aniseed-flavored tea, leave to infuse, immediately refrigerate for a few hours, until the tea is well frozen.
Serve the tea chilled with cherries, star anise and ice cubes.
Star anise: the powers according to Chinese medicine
Traditional oriental medicine before all the others was able to observe and discover the effects produced by star anise on human health.
In China and Japan it was mainly used as a refined and decorative ingredient in aromatic mixtures that were prepared in potpourri or burned to perfume the rooms.
Its properties were already known in 1500:
- pain reliever
- stimulant of appetite
effective against nausea, gastrointestinal spasms, dyspepsia and meteorism.
For these uses, decoctions were administered that also included the dried fruits of star anise. In addition, the aromatic fruits were incorporated into syrups to treat respiratory problems such as:
- relieve sore throat
- free from catarrhs of the airways
- oral disinfectant and against halitosis.
In 1769, HUANG Gongxiu discovered that it could cure intense cold and had an effect in regulating Qi , understood as a kind of life energy, to dissipate cold and relieve pain.
In China, therefore, it represented a drug even before an ingredient for cooking.
Modern pharmacology studies have shown that its crude extracts and active compounds possess wide pharmacological actions, especially in the activities:
Star anise: historical notes
Although star anise was known in the East since ancient times for its aromatic and medical properties, the plant does not appear in Chinese herbaria before the 16th century.
The spice was considered sacred in both China and Japan . It was burned during the Sung dynasty (960-1279), in front of the Chinese pagodas. With its ground peel, incense sticks are still prepared today to burn in temples.
Illicium verum species
In fact, the Illicium verum species has often been confused with another, Illicium anisatum , which is a toxic and, if consumed, potentially lethal species. This confusion has been particularly problematic in the past because Illicium anisatum was used in traditional Chinese medicine and both species were therefore retailed in Asia without distinction.
The confusion originated from the remarkable similarity between the fruits of the two species , which were also marketed under the same name of star anise, or Chinese anise or Japanese anise. Gradually, over time this mixture has been dissolving, leaving the name of star anise only to the Illicium verum species.
When the spice arrived in Europe for some time there were many products based on green anise. Therefore, it was easy for star anise to enter this area for the preparation of syrups, cordials, sorbets and above all in the flavoring of liqueurs.
It is an evergreen shrub native to the forests of Southeast Asia, between southern China and northeastern Vietnam. It belongs to the Illiciaceae or Schisandraceae, a family of angiosperms of the order Austrobaileyales (Class Magnoliopsida) comprising 42 species of plants that produce essential oils typical of tropical and sub-tropical areas.
The star anise tree is normally high, between 4 or 5 meters but can also reach and exceed 10 meters. It grows well in warm and sunny geographical areas characterized by long summers where the temperature never drops below -5 ° C, sheltered from cold and dry winds. Its bark is whitish. It has persistent leaves, arranged in alternate positions, thick and shiny, similar to those of the magnolia, with an oval lanceolate shape.
At the base of the leaves, at the axilla, the star anise plant forms large, very characteristic and decorative flowers , with yellow or yellowish-white calyx and corolla formed by 15-20 spirally arranged petals, surrounded by pink, red or purple. Inside, the flower has numerous stamens and eight or twelve carpels, which give rise to the fruit, or the set of 8-12 woody follicles, each of which contains a single seed and is joined to the other by a single peduncle, in a particular radial arrangement, like the points of a star (hence the name of “Star anise”).
Being a dehiscent fruit, when ripe the fruit opens, releasing the seeds, brown or reddish, shiny and bright.
Fruit and seed
It is the fruit, often mistakenly called the seed, the most interesting part of the star anise. The fruits, which can measure up to 3 cm in length, are collected before they reach complete ripeness, to prevent them from opening spontaneously releasing the precious seeds.
Hence, they are exposed to the sun to be dried. At the end of drying, the fruit has a hard and woody consistency and a rust color .
The shell and especially the seeds of the fruit contain the most relevant part of oil, with a concentration of anethole or trans-anethole that varies between 85 and 90%.
The aromatic component, in the form of essential oil, is extracted using the steam current technique.
Production and cultivation
Star anise currently grows wild in southern China, North Vietnam, South India, Java and the Philippines. The crops, on the other hand, have also been planted in other geographical areas. The most important are in south-eastern Australia, in the state of New South Wales, but also apparently in North America.
In our country and generally in European latitudes, a specialized cultivation of star anise is scarcely practicable.
In some botanical gardens you can admire some specimens, or cultivate it as a houseplant , as long as it is protected from the cold in the coldest season. Finding this plant in the nursery is not easy and the seeds offered for sale are not germinable and therefore are not suitable for cultivation. The only way is to be lucky enough to get seeds or seedlings from specialized nurseries.
However, it is difficult to cultivate and as a domestic plant it takes about 15 years to bear fruit or, indeed, it may never produce any.