I was first exposed to fennel when my Italian stepfather brought out a small plate of fresh fennel slices after an extremely filling five-course Italian meal. At the time I could not have even eaten a wafer-thin mint, as I was that full, but I somehow managed to chew on a slice of fennel. To my amazement, I began to feel less full and more comfortable.
Now in the US, fennel is frequently mistaken for celery, but one bite and you'll know that it sure doesn't taste anything like it! Identity crisis aside, fennel is known for it's very distinctive licorice flavor and has a reputation throughout Europe and many other parts of the world as nature's digestive aid. It has been being used both as a food source and for medicinal purposes throughout history.
No More Gas and Bloating!
Gripe water, a home remedy for colic, reflux, and gastrointestinal discomfort in babies, often contains fennel. In fact, a double-blind study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that of 125 colicky infants who received either fennel seed oil or placebo, 40 percent of the fennel group showed relief from symptoms compared with only 14 percent of infants in the placebo group [I]. Fennel tea has been shown to offer similar benefits, which is what I always want to sip on when I feel gassy or bloated! Can we get some gripe water for adults please?
Premenstrual and Menopausal Relief
Since fennel works as a carminative (a compound that helps your body expel gas) as well as a digestive stimulant, it not only offers relief from painful gas and bloating after a meal, but also during a woman's menstrual cycle. The good news doesn't stop there. Fennel, along with sage and aniseed, contains estrogen-like compounds that may offer relief from premenstrual syndrome and menopause symptoms. In addition to helping fight the battle of the bloat, fiber, like that found in fennel, can also help to relieve constipation, diarrhea, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
One cup of raw fresh fennel provides almost ten percent of your daily recommended fiber and nearly 20 percent of your daily recommended dose of vitamin C, all for only 30 calories! Vitamin C, an antioxidant, helps block free radicals that can eventually build up and lead to heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. What's more, the compound that gives fennel its licorice-like flavor has been identified by the Journal of Medicinal Food as having cancer-fighting potential [II]. Definitely an All-Star herb to keep on hand in your home medicine/spice cabinet.
How to Prepare Fennel
Fennel is in-season during the fall but can typically be purchased year round, in either plant or seed form.
The seeds can be chewed on whenever you feel gassy or bloated, or anytime after dinner as a digestive aid. I have a small bowl that always sits on my kitchen table for this purpose. One teaspoon chewed a few times, then chased with water, works miracles when it comes to decreasing gas and bloating. This little seed packs such a powerful anti-bloat punch that it is not uncommon for Indian restaurants to also have a small bowl of it for patrons to chew on after their meals. Plus, fennel seeds also freshen your breath!
While I sometimes like to enjoy the fennel plant plain, like celery, I also like to add fresh slices of the stalks or bulbs to soups, stews, braises, or salads. It is very sweet and is delicious in savory dishes. Two of my favorite recipes are Roasted Fennel, Brussels Sprouts and Caramelized Onions and Calamari and Fennel Noodles with Seafood.
The anti-bloat, gas-relieving, and mouth-freshening properties of this herb make it a perfect food before a hot date, right? Va-va-voom!
[I] Alexandrovich I, Rakovitskaya O, Kolmo E, et al. "The effect of fennel ( Foeniculum vulgare ) seed oil emulsion in infantile colic: a randomized, placebo-controlled study". Altern Ther Health Med . 2003;9:58–61. Web. June. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12868253>.
[II] Mohamad RH, El-Bastawesy AM, Abdel-Monem MG, Noor AM, Al-Mehdar HA, Sharawy SM, El-Merzabani MM. "Antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects of methanolic extract and volatile oil of fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare)". J Med Food. 2011 Sep;14(9):986-1001. Web. June. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21812646>.