On September 10, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Consumer Advisory regarding the agencys concerns about some cases of poisoning related to the substitution of the toxic Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum L., Illiciaceae) for the safe Chinese star anise (I. verum Hook. f.).
The following day, many news outlets reported the story. Unfortunately, many consumers, reporters, and even natural foods and grocery industry members have become confused over FDAs actions and the ensuing publicity, incorrectly suspecting problems with all commercially manufactured herbal teas containing star anise.
Chinese star anise is a safe and flavorful component of some popular herbal tea blends, and it is also a flavor component of spice mixes used in food products. It has the same star-shape as Japanese star anise, but the Japanese species contains some toxic compounds. The herbal tea industry has long used the safe Chinese star anise, not the Japanese material. Chinese star anise is recognized as safe for food use by FDA, as acknowledged in FDAs advisory.
Because the two species star-shaped seedpods look so much alike, the herbal tea industry many years ago developed laboratory techniques to distinguish between them. In-house quality control laboratories at herb tea companies in the United States employ microscopic analytical techniques as well as chemical tests to ensure that the herbal material they receive is the proper, safe herb before it is processed into herbal teas released to the commercial market. Several authoritative reference books and European pharmacopeias have published analytical methods to help make the proper distinctions.
"Herbal teas sold by reputable companies in the United States are quite safe," said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. "The herb industry has known about the problem with the two kinds of star anise for many years and has developed quality assurance programs to ensure that commercial herb teas use the safe Chinese star anise."
The cases of poisoning with Japanese star anise that the FDA cited were not related to herbal teas produced by reputable tea companies, Blumenthal added. Most of the poisoning cases probably involved cases where consumers purchased the toxic Japanese star anise in bulk and made their own teas. Japanese star anise has been sold for many years for its use as an ingredient in potpourris because of its shape and fragrance. It is not intended for internal use.
ABC also pointed out that the public should not confuse star anise with anise, sometimes called aniseseed (Pimpinella anisum L., Apiaceae), a member of the carrot family. Anise is a safe, commonly used food flavoring that is also generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Because of its licorice-like taste, anise oil is the main ingredient used in making "licorice" candies in the United States.
[Source: Herbal Science Group Clarifies Safety Issue on Star Anise Tea (press release). Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; September 12, 2003.]