Star anise is a spice made from the fruit of the Chinese evergreen tree Illicium verum.
It’s aptly named for the star-shaped pods from which the spice seeds are harvested and has a flavor that is reminiscent of licorice.
Because of similarities in their flavor and names, star anise is often confused with anise, though the two spices are unrelated.
Star anise is famed not only for its distinct flavor and culinary applications but also for its medicinal benefits.
This article reviews the benefits, uses and potential risks of star anise.
Herbs and spices are often unsung heroes of the health and nutrition world and star anise may be no exception.
Information on its vitamin and mineral content is lacking, but considering the small amount of spice you may use at any one time, its nutritional value may be less significant (1).
Nonetheless, it’s an impressive source of several powerful bioactive compounds — all of which are vital contributors to good health.
The most valuable component of star anise may lie within its dense supply of flavonoids and polyphenols. These may primarily be responsible for the spice’s broad applications and medicinal benefits (2).
- Shikimic acid
- Gallic acid
Together, these compounds may contribute to the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of star anise.
Ultimately, more research is needed to better understand how the bioactive compounds in star anise may support human health.
Summary Star anise is rich in a variety of flavonoids and polyphenolic compounds that may contribute to its medicinal capacity.
Star anise has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and has also been accepted into some Western medicine practices more recently.
Its rise in popularity is largely driven by its antimicrobial properties and pharmacological potential.
One of the most popular pharmacologically relevant attributes of star anise is its shikimic acid content.
Shikimic acid is a compound with strong antiviral capabilities. In fact, it’s one of the main active ingredients in Tamiflu, a popular medication for the treatment of influenza (7).
Currently, star anise is the primary source of shikimic acid used for pharmaceutical product development. As the influenza pandemic continues to mount as a threat to global health, the demand for star anise is on the rise (7).
Though star anise is frequently used for treating influenza, more research is needed to further understand its potential to treat other viral infections in humans.
Star anise is a rich source of the flavonoid anethole. This compound is responsible for the spice’s distinct flavor and offers potent antifungal benefits.
Some agricultural research has found that trans-anethole derived from star anise may inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungi in certain edible crops (9).
Test-tube research indicates that other bioactive compounds found in star anise essential oil, like terpene linalool, may suppress biofilm and cell wall formation of infectious fungi in humans (10).
More research is needed to better understand the applications for star anise to treat fungal infections in humans.
Another important medicinal benefit of star anise is its ability to inhibit bacterial growth implicated in a variety of common illnesses.
Some research has revealed that star anise extract is as effective as antibiotics against multiple drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria. This may be particularly useful for future development of new antibiotic medications (11).
A separate study revealed star anise extract to be somewhat effective in reducing the growth of E. coli on a petri dish, though it wasn’t as effective as current, more common antibiotic treatments (13).
At this time, most research on the antibacterial properties of star anise is limited to animal and test-tube studies. More studies are needed to better understand how this spice may be used to support human health.
Summary Star anise has been useful in the medical realm for treating a variety of fungal, bacterial and viral infections.
In cooking, star anise can be used whole or as a powder.
It’s often utilized in classical Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, especially as a flavor enhancer in broths, soups and curries.
It’s well known for its presence in the Chinese “5 spice” and Indian “Garam Masala” blends.
In traditional Chinese and folk medicine practices, star anise is steeped in water to make a tea used to treat respiratory infections, nausea, constipation and other digestive issues.
Star anise also makes a great addition to sweet dishes and desserts, such as baked fruit, pies, quick bread and muffins.
If you’ve never used this spice in your culinary pursuits before, keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Start with a small amount and add more to taste in order to avoid using too much.
Try sprinkling powdered star anise into your next batch of muffins or throw a couple of whole pods into your next pot of soup for a warming boost of flavor.
Summary Star anise has a distinct licorice-like flavor. It's a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine and can be used in soups, stews, broths, baked goods, desserts or steeped as a tea.
Pure Chinese star anise is generally recognized as safe for most people. However, there have been few reports of allergic reactions (14).
For the general population, a more serious concern is a close relative of the Chinese spice — the highly toxic Japanese star anise.
Japanese star anise looks almost identical to its Chinese counterpart and some commercially available sources of Chinese star anise have been found to be mixed with the Japanese spice.
Additionally, there have been case reports of severe, potentially fatal reactions to star anise in infants (16).
It is presumed that these cases were due to unknown contamination with the Japanese spice. Thus, it’s recommended that star anise is not given to infants and children (16).
To proceed cautiously, it’s a good idea to check the source of the star anise you’re purchasing to ensure it’s purely the Chinese variety.
If you’re not 100% certain of the source or purity, it may also be good practice not to use too much at once in order to avoid accidental intoxication.
Summary Star anise is generally considered safe but may be contaminated with highly toxic Japanese star anise. To ensure the purity of the spice you’re buying, always double-check its source to avoid accidental intoxication.
Star anise has a distinct licorice flavor that can enhance a variety of dishes.
Its powerful bioactive compounds may help treat several fungal, bacterial and viral infections.
While consumption of pure Chinese star anise is typically safe, it may be contaminated with Japanese star anise that is highly toxic.
Always double check the source of the spice you’re purchasing to ensure purity and start with a small amount to avoid adverse reactions.