Fennel: Health Benefits, Nutrients, and Recipes

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 16, 2024
5 min read

Fennel is a flowering vegetable and belongs to the same family as carrots and celery. It’s a large plant, with stalks that can grow up to 8 feet tall. Its base is pale and firm, like celery, and its stalks are topped with feathery fronds. You can eat the whole plant — the bulb, stalks, leaves, and seeds — and use it in a variety of dishes.

Fennel has a long history in the Mediterranean region, where it has been used in cooking and medicines. It's common in Italian and Greek cuisines. You can also find it often in Indian, Middle Eastern, and other cuisines around the world.

Fennel taste

Fennel has a sweet, earthy flavor, which is similar to licorice but much milder. Cooking it brings out its sweetness.

Fennel vs. anise

Fennel and anise are related and have a similar licorice-like flavor. They both contain a compound called anethole, which gives them their flavor. But fennel has a milder, sweeter flavor than anise, which has a very strong licorice flavor.

Like many vegetables, fennel is a low-calorie food rich in nutrients. Here are just a few of the many benefits of adding fennel to your diet:

Improved digestion. In many parts of the world, it’s common to eat a little bit of fennel after a meal to aid with digestion and relieve gassiness. Fennel has been shown to help with digestion by reducing inflammation in the bowels and decreasing bacteria that cause gassiness. Research shows that fennel oil could help ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Relief from period cramps. Research shows that fennel is as effective as conventional medicines at easing discomfort from period cramps. Studies also show that fennel can reduce the production of oxytocin and prostaglandin, two hormones that contribute to painful periods.

Colic relief. Colic is a common medical condition affecting newborn babies. It can cause fussiness and discomfort. Research shows that fennel — alone or combined with other medicinal herbs — works to improve colic symptoms.

Rich source of antioxidants. Fennel contains many antioxidant compounds including rosmarinic acid, chlorogenic acid, quercetin, and apigenin. Antioxidants can help fight cell damage from free radicals and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Fennel is a nutrient-rich vegetable. It's a particularly good source of:

  • Fiber
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin C
  • Manganese

Nutrients per serving

One cup of sliced fennel contains:

  • Calories: 27
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: 45 milligrams
  • Carbohydrates: 6 grams
  • Fiber: 3 gram
  • Protein: 1 gram

Fennel is usually safe if you eat it in normal amounts, but there are some possible risks for certain people:

Allergies. If you are allergic to plants in the carrot family, you might have an allergic reaction to fennel. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to fennel include a rash, trouble breathing, stomachache, and swelling of the lips, face, and tongue.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding. Research shows that large amounts of fennel might not be safe during pregnancy. It might also affect your baby if it's passed through breast milk.

Medication interactions. Fennel may lower the effectiveness of a breast cancer drug called tamoxifen.

Always check with your doctor before taking fennel supplements or using fennel essential oils.

You can slice or dice fennel. To get the bulb ready for either preparation, you'll need a sharp knife and a cutting board. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Cut off the stalks close to the base of the bulb. Save the feathery fronds to garnish soups or salads.
  2. Slice off a thin portion of the root end to create a flat base. Remove any tough or discolored outer layers.
  3. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise, from top to bottom.
  4. Each half will have a triangular core. Hold the fennel half flat on the cutting board, and cut out the core at an angle.

The bulb is the tastiest part of this root vegetable. To prepare fennel, slice the bulb into strips. You can cook fennel the same way you would cook other root vegetables, such as carrots — by roasting, baking, sauteing, or grilling it.

Fennel has a sweet, earthy flavor, similar to licorice. It pairs well with foods that are a combination of sweet and savory, such as curries, pumpkin soups, and apple-stuffed pork chops.

Some common ways to add fennel to your diet include:

  • Substitute fennel stalks for celery stalks in recipes for soups or stews.
  • Wrap fennel in tin foil with ham and other root vegetables and cook in the oven until soft.
  • Use sauteed fennel as a bed for roast chicken or pork.
  • Dice fennel and add it to a salad.
  • Roast fennel wedges with salt, pepper, and butter.

Fennel tea

Fennel tea is a soothing, herbal brew made by steeping fennel seeds in hot water. It's often used as a traditional remedy to improve digestion and reduce bloating and gas. You can buy it in tea bags or steep fennel seeds.

Fennel oil

Fennel oil is a concentrated extract of fennel seeds. It has a strong anise-like smell and flavor — stronger than the fresh plant. It can be used in cooking but is more often used as an herbal remedy or for aromatherapy. Because it's so strong, you should talk to your doctor before using it to make sure it's safe for you.

Fennel soup

There are many ways to use fennel in soup. You can puree it with leeks and potatoes, dice it up in a vegetable soup, or add it to chili for a kicky, unique flavor.

Fennel in salads

Thinly sliced raw fennel is a flavorful garnish for salads with a mixture of lettuces. It can also stand on its own in a shaved fennel salad with olive oil and lemon.

Fennel sausage

Fennel sausage is a type of pork sausage flavored with fennel seeds. It gives the sausage a sweet, licorice-like flavor. It's a favorite dish in Italian and Mediterranean cuisines.

Fennel substitutes

If you don't have fennel seeds on hand, you can use anise seeds, which have a similar flavor. If you're looking for something to substitute the fennel bulb, go for celery. For texture, bok choy is a good replacement, as it has a similar crunch.

Fennel is a versatile vegetable with a unique licorice-like flavor. It offers flavor to your cooking as well as some possible health benefits. It's high in nutrients, can help with digestive issues, and may help prevent some diseases through its antioxidant properties. It's generally safe if you eat it in normal amounts. But you should be aware of possible allergies and interactions with medications.

Is it OK to eat fennel every day?

Eating fennel in moderation is part of a healthy diet and generally considered safe for most people. But eating large amounts every day could have some negative effects for certain people. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about how much fennel you should be eating.

Is fennel better for you raw or cooked?

Both raw and cooked fennel have health benefits. Neither one is better than the other.

Is fennel good for your liver?

There is no research that shows that fennel has any benefits for liver health.