Fennel: A Funny Looking Superfood

Today I was stuck at the pediatrician’s office with my youngest child, and I realized that if we were going to have family dinner at a reasonable time, my oldest son would have to go buy the groceries. I sat in the waiting room and texted him a list: chicken breasts, wild rice, baby spinach and an onion. Pretty simple, right? Apparently not. He bought a rotisserie chicken, couscous, romaine lettuce and what looked to him to be an onion. It was actually a fennel bulb.

There was not any other food in the house, so I had to make do. I could work with the chicken, couscous and lettuce, but I had never bought, much less cooked with, fennel. I hit the internet and found a wonderful fennel salad that was loaded with healthy foods and even called for romaine lettuce.

The fennel had such a refreshing taste that I decided to sit down and learn more about it. I discovered that fennel is a member of the same aromatic, flowering plant family as parsley, carrots and dill. It has been used in both cooking and healing for hundreds of years, and the entire fennel plant from bulb to seed is edible. Fennel is used primarily in Mediterranean dishes, likely because in ancient times it thrived in the Mediterranean Basin.

The Greek name for fennel is “marathon.” It literally means “grow thin” because fennel was once thought to be an appetite suppressant. The legendary Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC, which culminated in the first “marathon” run by Pheidippides to Athens, was fought in the town of Marathon, Greece. It was named for its abundant fields of fennel.

Chinese, Greek, Egyptian and Indian cultures all used fennel seeds for centuries to soothe gastrointestinal issues. Scientists have now learned that it is anethol, the chemical compound in fennel seed, that acts as an anti-spasmodic to relax smooth muscle. When the anethol in fennel works on the smooth muscle of the intestine, it provides relief from common digestive pain. Additionally, scientists have found that anethol also works on the smooth muscle of the uterine wall, thereby reducing the pain and cramping associated with menstruation.

A recent randomized, triple-blind, placebo controlled trial found that fennel is an effective treatment for the hot flashes, anxiety and sleep problems experienced by postmenopausal women. Another study done on mice at the National Cancer Institute in Cairo, Egypt indicated that fennel seed extract (FSME) has antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) effects.

Who knew that this odd-looking vegetable could have so many benefits? Now that I know more about it, I am going to add more fennel to my diet. Besides my new salad, I am going to also try fennel tea and look for supplements containing fennel.