by Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 28, 2005
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A licorice-flavored spice that's long been a staple on Asian tables may now be a major weapon against global influenza.
Part of Chinese cuisine's five-spice powder, star anise is also the primary source of shikimic acid used to produce oseltamivir phosphate, sold under the brand name Tamiflu.
With fears of a bird-flu pandemic rising, the antiviral flu-treatment drug is in demand—and so is the once obscure fruit used to produce it.
China Daily, a government-run English-language newspaper, reported early this month that star anise prices in some Chinese markets had doubled in a week's time. United States spice merchants are seeing spikes as well.
"This week it has jumped considerably in price, and now supply issues are becoming a problem as well, when a month ago there was plenty of supply," said Dennis Knock of Frontier Natural Foods Co-Op in Norway, Iowa.
The Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche is currently the only company producing Tamiflu.
This year the drug's revenues more than doubled from the three-month period ending in June to the three-month period ending in September, when Tamiflu rang up sales worth 211 million U.S. dollars.
Roche plans to produce some 300 million doses of Tamiflu by 2007. This year it will produce about 55 million doses.
The Tamiflu boom and subsequent media coverage have created a buzz around star anise.
"There has been a lot of emotional run-up in prices, both in China and in the U.S," explained Ed Deep, a spice broker with A.A. Sayia & Company in Hoboken, New Jersey.
"In New York it has gone from around $1.30 a pound [about half a kilogram] up to $1.70 a pound."
"[Roche] is buying a larger amount of star anise to extract the shikimic acid that they need for Tamiflu," Deep added. He also noted that some of the demand is driven by "people who believe that star anise will help with the flu—which we believe is erroneous."
Deep says that Chinese cooks are also fueling the price spikes.
"I was in China last week, and almost every day there was some report on star anise being used [to fight flu], and the local markets are revved up," he said.
"Mostly it's because housewives and people who use this in cooking think that if pharmaceutical companies are buying all of this up, there won't be enough to make their mu shu pork."
Unprocessed Equals Unhelpful
As a spice, star anise is of little or no help to flu sufferers. Shikimic acid is only extracted from the fruit's distinctive seedpod after a lengthy and complicated process whose details are kept secret by Roche.
Even practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine say that consumers shouldn't bother stockpiling star anise to guard against the flu.
That's not to say the plant has no healing power.
"It's used as a digestive stimulant in Chinese medicine," said Bryn Clark, an herbalist practicing in Beverly, Massachusetts.
"It's got a warming quality, so it has kind of a slightly stimulant effect on a digestive system that has gotten slow or is having problems," Clark added.
Star anise teas are also believed to treat colic in babies. But in 2003 the FDA issued an advisory against such teas when dozens of people fell ill from drinking them.
It's likely that the offending teas contained toxic Japanese star anise, rather than its benign Chinese relative. Still, the agency warned against consuming any star anise teas, citing the lack of specific evidence to support their assumed benefits.
Star Anise Supply
Star anise—not to be confused with anise, a licorice-flavored herb—grows on evergreen trees in hot, humid, mountainous regions. The plants do particularly well in China's southwestern provinces: Guizhou, Guangxi Zhuangzu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
The eight-pointed seedpods are harvested and dried before Roche's extraction process yields shikimic acid for Tamiflu. Just 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of acid is produced from every 66 pounds (30 kilograms) of pods, according to Roche's Web site.
Other plants also contain shikimic acid, but star anise has a special concentration that makes it attractive to drugmakers.
"There are a number of different varieties of star anise, but only one in particular has the concentration of shikimic acid that can be extracted cost-effectively, and I know that we're not concerned about that supply," said Al Wasilewski, a spokesperson for Roche in Nutley, New Jersey.
Roche also produces shikimic acid using a special e-coli bacteria fermentation process. They hope to increase the use of this process and to make it more cost-effective, which could ease the demand for star anise.
"About a third of our production of shikimic acid comes from fermentation, and our goal over time is to shift from an extraction-dominant [star anise-based] source of shikimic acid to a fermentation source," Wasilewski said.
In the meantime, there is no short-term supply relief in sight, because star anise trees take years to mature. But Deep, the New Jersey spice broker, notes that star anise is still commercially available, if costly, and that such markets are always subject to unpredictable events.
"If the world is fortunate with this pandemic that everyone is talking about, the whole demand for Tamiflu may just go down the tubes," he said.
"Star anise has found its day in the sun—but how long it will last is anyone's guess."