Not very familiar with this bulbous seasonal veggie? Here's what to know.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
November 19, 2020
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Fennel is one of those vegetables that may be less familiar than, say, broccoli or zucchini. But this bulbous fall veggie and its seeds deserve to be part of your regular vegetable rotation. Here are some of fennel's nutrients and potential health benefits, what it tastes like, and how to incorporate it into raw and cooked dishes.

Fennel is rich in health-protective nutrients

According to a review in BioMed Research International, fennel has long been used as a medicinal plant for a wide range of conditions related to digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory systems and as a milk stimulant for lactating mothers. Studies show that fennel contains health-protective antioxidants and valuable antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory compounds.

One cup of raw fennel slices contains just 27 calories, with nearly 3 grams of fiber. It packs 17% of the daily goal for immune-supporting vitamin C and 10% for blood pressure-regulating potassium, plus smaller amounts of manganese, calcium, iron, and B vitamins.

Fennel has specific benefits for women's health

For women, the health benefits of fennel are primarily tied to its oil. A recent paper, published in the Journal of Menopausal Medicine, reviewed the positive effects of fennel oil in the management of painful menstruation, premenstrual syndrome, missing periods, menopause, lactation, and polycystic ovary syndrome.

The report cites one study in which women taking 100 milligrams of fennel oil daily for eight weeks improved their scores on a menopause rating scale, compared with women on a sunflower oil placebo.

However, I don't recommend using essential oils on your own, either orally, topically, or even via aromatherapy. Rely on the guidance and supervision of a physician to determine if you can benefit from an oil, which formulation to buy, and how to use it—as well as to monitor any potential interactions, allergic reactions, or other side effects. This is especially true if you're pregnant or trying to conceive. Fennel supplements may also interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.

Fennel seeds can aid digestion

The seeds from fennel plants are commonly used as a type of spice to season food. Medicinally, fennel seeds have also been used to treat bloating and gas, via a tea made from a small spoonful of the seeds and hot water, steeped for 20 minutes and sipped a half hour after a meal.

Fennel may help ease pain

A 2020 study, published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, looked at the effect of fennel in people with knee osteoarthritis. Patients were randomly assigned to receive either capsules containing powdered fennel extract, or a placebo, twice a day for two weeks. The fennel group experienced a reduction in pain and stiffness that was not seen in the control group.

What fennel tastes like

Fennel has a licorice-like aroma, but the fresh bulb is light, bright, and mild. The taste is slightly sweet with a hint of perfumy flavor, but it's delicate and not at all overpowering.

When shopping for fresh fennel, look for a small- to medium-size heavy, intact white bulb that's unbruised, with bright green firm stalks and feathery leaves. Fennel seeds have a stronger anise flavor that's warm and sweet. This is why they're typically used as a seasoning, rather than popping them like sunflower or pumpkin seeds.

How to eat and cook fennel

You can eat fennel raw or cooked. I like to shave or thinly slice the bulb and add the shavings to salads along with sliced apples, or marinate in a lemony extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) vinaigrette. To cook fennel, I enjoy sautéing it in EVOO on the stovetop or oven roasting in EVOO that's been simply seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.

Most recipes call for the bulb, but the gorgeous, delicate green tops are also edible. You can mince and use them as a garnish for everything from mashed cauliflower to roasted spaghetti squash and lentil soup. Look for fennel seeds in the spice aisle. Add them to hearty dishes, like lentil Bolognese, potato or white bean soup, or homemade bread.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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