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Food for Neurotoxic Thought

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So I was at RBG Kew yesterday for a seminar on authentication of herbs in TCM and an interesting thought? connection? possibility? occured to me. In doing herbal authentication work in China, the researchers found that Star Anise (Illicium verum) has several look alikes in the same genus that have volatile compounds that affect the CNS. Specifically, they are neurotoxins. Now, I know star anise has been used in some absinthes for a stronger anise flavor.

Does anyone else think that maybe it's possible some of the neurological effects reportedly caused by absinthe may have been due to adulteration of the beverage by lookalike harmful herbs?

I wish I could do a test to check, but at the moment, without a time machine I'm kind of out of luck. So... thoughts?

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I'm not going to rule out the possibility but in high quality absinthes this probably would not have been seen as star anise was used lightly, if at all. Also, would those chemicals survive distillation?

 

Lower quality pre-ban absinthe may have had copper salts to color it green as well as being shoddy liqour to begin with, which many have theorized as adding to absinthes bad reputation. Currently I haven't seen any historical proof of copper salt use nor any chemical to replace the louche effect so those may just be theories.

 

I hear that Calamus is a hot topic as well but I'm also not too knowledgeable there.

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Part of the issue is separating fact from fiction. Many 'reported' neurological effects were simply propaganda. Other effects are simply effects of alcoholism:

 

The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a number of articles about absinthe throughout the Belle Époque. In 1868:

WE think it time that an authoritative and exhaustive inquiry should be made as to the effects of excessive absinthe drinking, about which a great deal is being said just now, not merely by medical men, but by the public. It is quite clear that a great deal of what has been said is mere nonsense, and will not bear a moment's investigation. And when one reads carefully even the seemingly authoritative description of the symptoms given by M. Legrand … it is impossible to fix on any definite peculiarities which clearly distinguish poisoning with absinthe from poisoning with any other concentrated alcohol, taken in small doses repeated with extreme frequency…

For our own part, we have never been convinced that there is anything in the symptoms of acute or chronic absinthism as they are described, essentially different from those of acute or chronic alcoholism which has been produced by the imbibition of innumerable drams of any spirit.

“We have repeatedly seen the whole train of symptoms, which are now so much talked of, produced by the constant drinking of brandy or rum. As for hallucinations, there is nothing more common. At any rate, it will take a good deal of very solid and precise evidence to convince us that the trifling amount of essence of wormwood contained in the liquor called absinthe, adds any considerable poisonous power to the natural influence of some 20 or 30 ounces per diem of a highly concentrated alcohol,



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While I do realize that most of the neurological symptoms were tosh, or easily attributable to the high alcohol content, just play along on this train of thought for a minute:

 

Distillers had different recipes for absinthe. Some of them included Chinese star anise (Illicium verum). Macromorphologically, Chinese and Japanese star anise are practically identical. Fluorescent microscopy and scanning electron microscopy are the only way without resorting to chemical fingerprinting to tell the difference between the two (None of which was available back then). Even today there are instances of tea recalls and such because of adulteration. What if a distiller who didn't know any better, couldn't tell the difference and used the wrong Illicium species in his recipe? What if maybe a handful of cases of neurological symptoms weren't rubbish? What if people merely blamed the wrong plant all this time?

 

I know it's a huge 'what if', but it's something that caught my attention. The main sesquiterpene lactone, anisatin, effects the same neurotoxic symptoms as thujone.

 

 

'Anisatin is quite stable in alcoholic solutions under ordinary conditions.' It is recognized as a convulsant. (Kudo, Y., Oka, J. I., & Yamada, K. (1981). Anisatin, a potent GABA antagonist, isolated from Illicium anisatum. Neuroscience letters, 25(1), 83-88.)

Actually I. anisatum is a neurotoxic plant because it contains sesquiterpenic lactones. (Kim, J. Y., Kim, S. S., Oh, T. H., Baik, J. S., Song, G., Lee, N. H., & Hyun, C. G. (2009). Chemical composition, antioxidant, anti-elastase, and anti-inflammatory activities of Illicium anisatum essential oil. Acta pharmaceutica, 59(3), 289-300.)

 

Botanical ingredients of absinthe and the different recipes are part of what I'm looking into in my research. What if some idiot looking to make a quick buck producing cheap absinthe thought Japanese star anise would be a good ingredient? Like I said, it's a bit of a stretch, but what if?

Additional resources:

http://eprints.manipal.edu/19/1/Star_Anise.pdf

http://df7sm3xp4s.scholar.serialssolutions.com/?sid=google&auinit=I&aulast=Tonutti&atitle=Aromatic+plants+in+alcoholic+beverages.+A+review.&id=doi:10.1002/ffj.2001&title=Flavour+and+fragrance+journal&volume=25&issue=5&date=2010&spage=341&issn=0882-5734

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Interesting idea.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_star_anise

 

So, maybe after trade opened with Japan in the 1850's some French spice buyer thought he got a new source?

 

However, I think that if Japanese star anise was responsible, it would have been identified quickly, as star anise would have been used in other culinary uses besides making absinthe.

 

So, something to hunt for, would be any mention of toxic badine or star anise used as a spice in other applications in that time period .

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The second article under the additional articles I offered actually mentions French pastis being adulterated with Japanese star anise and strict controls being put in place regarding the import of Chinese star anise. That was just over ten years ago. A century ago? Who would have been able to tell the difference? What I really need access to is some of the old recipes/sales reciepts of some of the cheaper absinthes made back then.

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Hrm. Okay, well, this is the article in question:

Tonutti, I., & Liddle, P. (2010). Aromatic plants in alcoholic beverages. A review. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, 25(5), 341-350.

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Definitely an interesting theory, but the scientific studies that accused absinthe of causing such effects didn't actually use absinthe. They used thujone specifically. I'm unaware of any studies that used absinthe itself, or even anise extracts/compounds.

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Found this anecdotal evidence that suggest that Japanese (anisatum) star anise would not have been deliberately sought out, and likely avoided.

This extract analysis shows that it has much, much lower anethole levels compared to Chinese (verum) star. Star anise was (is) added to enhance the louche. In this particular case, 1.8% vs 88% anethole for Chinese star.

 

http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/pdf/10.1139/v66-371

 

Even if a distiller did not know that he got the wrong star anise, he might conclude he got a bad batch of star, and discard it.

 

Again, this is anecdotal, and not saying that contamination did not happen. This is just suggesting that there was no likely reason to deliberately seek out and use Japanese star. So if any contamination happened, it was probably not common.

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So I was at RBG Kew yesterday

 

Lucky you! Kew is on my bucket list; I could spend a week there. And the next week at Wakehurst, then Lambrook Manor ...

 

In doing herbal authentication work in China, the researchers found that Star Anise (Illicium verum) has several look alikes in the same genus that have volatile compounds that affect the CNS. Specifically, they are neurotoxins. Now, I know star anise has been used in some absinthes for a stronger anise flavor.

Does anyone else think that maybe it's possible some of the neurological effects reportedly caused by absinthe may have been due to adulteration of the beverage by lookalike harmful herbs?

 

Distillers had different recipes for absinthe. Some of them included Chinese star anise (Illicium verum). Macromorphologically, Chinese and Japanese star anise are practically identical. Fluorescent microscopy and scanning electron microscopy are the only way without resorting to chemical fingerprinting to tell the difference between the two (None of which was available back then). Even today there are instances of tea recalls and such because of adulteration. What if a distiller who didn't know any better, couldn't tell the difference and used the wrong Illicium species in his recipe? What if maybe a handful of cases of neurological symptoms weren't rubbish? What if people merely blamed the wrong plant all this time?

 

I know it's a huge 'what if', but it's something that caught my attention. The main sesquiterpene lactone, anisatin, effects the same neurotoxic symptoms as thujone.

 

Botanical ingredients of absinthe and the different recipes are part of what I'm looking into in my research. What if some idiot looking to make a quick buck producing cheap absinthe thought Japanese star anise would be a good ingredient? Like I said, it's a bit of a stretch, but what if?

[...]

The second article under the additional articles I offered actually mentions French pastis being adulterated with Japanese star anise and strict controls being put in place regarding the import of Chinese star anise. That was just over ten years ago. A century ago? Who would have been able to tell the difference? What I really need access to is some of the old recipes/sales reciepts of some of the cheaper absinthes made back then.

 

Good luck with that! It's hard enough to track down any hard production data on the more well-known, high-quality brands.

 

However, I think this line of inquiry has a lot of merit; although I was aware of the toxic Japanese specie, it never really occurred to me that it might have been confused with or substituted for regular badiane in commerce.

 

Food regulation was obviously nowhere near as stringent as it is now, and the majority of people would be drinking the more economical brands. We know that some unscrupulous producers intentionally used antimony, aniline dyes, copper sulfate, and cupric acetate, but they appear to have been in the minority, based on analytical studies done at the time.

 

It's a given that cheap brands would use star anise rather than green anise for the same reason they do now: it's a cheap shortcut. I'll be interested in watching this unfold.

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I think talking about the toxicity of any chemical without considering the dosage require to cause it is quite pointless. Any herb included in an absinthe's recipes has the potential for being toxic at a high enough dosage. What is the the LD50 for the chemicals contained in Japanese Star Anise?

If we are not talking about something like Belladonna alkaloids I still believe that the amount of alcohol contained in absinthe prevents anyone from ingesting enough chemicals from the herbs to get any effect without getting a serious (and likely lethal) case of alcohol poisoning.

And even if this Japanese Star Anise can be toxic in very small amounts and some distilleries for some weird reason added it to their absinthe, the next question would still be: would this toxicity be at all significant in a scenario where the individual was exposed to so many harmful things on a daily basis, from alcohol itself, to lead poisoning from the water pipes, contaminants in not properly treated water, poor diet with lack of amino acids and vitamins, exposure to hazardous chemicals in factories, etc etc?

Edited by Stefano Rossoni

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Lucky you! Kew is on my bucket list

Perk of the program I'm in. :punk: We get four visits over the course of our classes, two days apiece. If anyone wants to go and is in the area (and can get me out to London) I'll happily take them. I get friends and family in for free.

 

I think talking about the toxicity of any chemical without considering the dosage require to cause it is quite pointless.

While I do agree, there is a past incidence of pastis being contaminated with Japanese star anise a little over ten years ago, which forced much stricter regulations for those wishing to import star anise (I. verum) into the EU. They refer to the incident as 'food poisoning' which seems a little generic in this case. I'd have to track down exactly what the symptoms were.

Still, I find the line of reasoning interesting enough to dig into. After all, what if both sides were right, and wrong at the same time? Yes, there were cases of convulsions and seizures caused by absinthe, but no, it wasn't the wormwood or thujone. What if, in the end, it was a different herb entirely? Kinda trippy to think about, huh?

Edited by herbgirl

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And what if, in the end, it was simple alcoholism, like the Lancet described? ;)

 

Wouldn't producers be doing some form of QC with their batches? If they were taste-testing them, wouldn't they have fallen ill well before it even made it to market? Granted, that probably wasn't the case with lower quality brands.

 

 

But we are also forgetting something that (I believe it was) Dakini brought up many moons ago: that prices of anise were inverted back then, with star anise costing significantly more than green. Would lower quality brands have been using a more expensive anise?

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That is a good point you bring up Stefano. The lab rats injected with thujone comes to mind. Not good science to say the least.

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Except that the toxicity of star anise isn't controversial; the LD50 of anisatin is 1.03 mg/kg.

 

"Shikimi (I. anisatum L.) has been known as a toxic plant since ancient times. It has been documented that people in Japan often were killed by unintentionally eating the fruits of the Japanese star anise (I. anisatum L.). Although the convulsive activity of the fruits of I. anisatum had been known for several centuries, it was only in 1952 that Lane et al. (1952) succeeded in the first isolation of a pure convulsive principle, which was named anisatin."

 

 

Wouldn't producers be doing some form of QC with their batches? If they were taste-testing them, wouldn't they have fallen ill well before it even made it to market? Granted, that probably wasn't the case with lower quality brands.

 

A few tastes per shift probably wouldn't cause problems, and the majority of reports of "absinthism" were in chronic abusers.

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Right. That's kind of my point, in an indirect way. If, assuming this theory is correct, and that Japanese Anise was so harmful, how come the effects were only being seen in chronic abusers? The same effects seen in abusers of any other alcohol.

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Possibly because they're the ones who were getting enough to cause the effects. We've always accepted that the effects were due to alcoholism because there weren't any other credible culprits, but this does throw a new light on the situation.

 

I'm not saying I'm convinced, I just think it bears looking into.

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Well we always accepted that the symptoms described were cause by alcohol because it follows Occam's razor: the symptoms are consistent with alcohol abuse, the subjects were surely absusing alcohol, therefore alcohol was the cause.

It's definitely possible that something else was involved, but there are a lot of "ifs" in this theory, like if for some reason (greed) someone sold the toxic Japanese star anise instead of normal star anise, and if the distilleries didn't wonder why the absinthe had no louche, and if they decided to add some anise essential oil and sell it anyway, and if no one from the distillery drank enough to get sick from it, then it's possible that the Japanese Star Anise was involved in the infamous absinthisme symptoms.

But then it's just as likely that some nasty chemical was present in the water used to dilute the absinthe. Besides the lead pipes I think about the jokes Baudelaire was telling about the Belgian beer being made with water from the Senne river, and god knows what kind of crap the post-industrial-revolution Seine river was carrying around...

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Why wouldn't the absinthe louche? The most likely scenario would be that the star anise supply would—intentionally or otherwise—contain some percentage of Japanese star anise. Just like today, some shipments of sweet fennel will often include some percentage of bitter fennel. That's only for the relatively few makers that were using whole botanicals instead of oils.

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Well I couldn't find anything about what is the average anisatin content of the Illicium anisatum fruit, but I read that the LD50 for the fruit (pericarp) is 510mg/kg. if that's accurate it means that a 60kg individual would need to ingest 30g of illicium anisatum fruit to reach the LD50. Unless my math is off, that requires ingesting a large amount (but doable) of absinthe if the star anise used in the distillation is 100% Illicium anisatum, and a non-doable amount of several bottles if the Illicium anisatum is say 10% of the star anise used.

 

This seems consistent with the fact that the reports of anisatin poisoning I found online were talking about star anise tea given to children; a tea doesn't have alcohol limiting the amount you can drink and children obviously would have a much lower LD50.

 

But it's morning, I'm really not confident in my math, I could be totally wrong...

Edited by Stefano Rossoni

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Why wouldn't the absinthe louche? .

He may have been referring to this:

 

 

Found this anecdotal evidence that suggest that Japanese (anisatum) star anise would not have been deliberately sought out, and likely avoided.

This extract analysis shows that it has much, much lower anethole levels compared to Chinese (verum) star. Star anise was (is) added to enhance the louche. In this particular case, 1.8% vs 88% anethole for Chinese star.

 

http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/pdf/10.1139/v66-371

 

Even if a distiller did not know that he got the wrong star anise, he might conclude he got a bad batch of star, and discard it.

 

Again, this is anecdotal, and not saying that contamination did not happen. This is just suggesting that there was no likely reason to deliberately seek out and use Japanese star. So if any contamination happened, it was probably not common.

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I thought all essential oils louche regardless to their anethole content – or at least I've never met one that didn't. They are called "oils" because they're not soluble in water. Also, from what a vial of steam distilled green anise oil tells me here, anethole (apart from being sweet and somewhat anise-like) isn't the principal aromatic component of anise and badiane. It lacks the sharp characteristics of anise. It could be possible that Japanese star anise both gives a good louche and more anise taste than its anethole content implies, and that was surely more than enough for some of the 19th century crapsinthe makers.

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I thought all essential oils louche regardless to their anethole content – or at least I've never met one that didn't.

 

 

:huh: If other essential oils louche, why use star anise at all?

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Lovely place. They've been one of our absolute best partners, really (the UK National Archives, at Kew). We're working through a huge group of their archive collections right now. :)

 

 

Herbgirl- Got your note. I just did some bouncing around within some archives tonight, and so far, I am not able to locate direct sales receipts of star anise to distilleries. The majority of what I am finding are tariff reports and sales ledgers between ministerial attaché’s in Japan and in the UK. So far, not what I am sure you are looking for. I'll keep trying though.

 

 

 

 

So I was at RBG Kew yesterday for a seminar on authentication of herbs in TCM and an interesting thought? connection? possibility? occured to me. In doing herbal authentication work in China, the researchers found that Star Anise (Illicium verum) has several look alikes in the same genus that have volatile compounds that affect the CNS. Specifically, they are neurotoxins. Now, I know star anise has been used in some absinthes for a stronger anise flavor.

Does anyone else think that maybe it's possible some of the neurological effects reportedly caused by absinthe may have been due to adulteration of the beverage by lookalike harmful herbs?

I wish I could do a test to check, but at the moment, without a time machine I'm kind of out of luck. So... thoughts?

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I thought all essential oils louche regardless to their anethole content – or at least I've never met one that didn't.

 

 

:huh: If other essential oils louche, why use star anise at all?

 

Because you have to replace the amount of anise oil with something, and you don't want to do it with just any herb. It may end up tasting very silly, and not to say, nothing like absinthe. Not as if I knew Japanese star anise's flavor and the volatility of its oils (during distillation), but it might have been a useful substitute.

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Essential oils from the other herbs used in a classic absinthe recipe don't louche like anise and fennel, maybe some haziness/cloudiness but not a proper louche. Easy to see if you distill single herbs and then add water to taste it. Also the reason why anise-free crapsinthes don't louche.

Edited by Stefano Rossoni

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