Licorice is a divisive ingredient, to say the least. But no matter how much you love or hate the taste of the distinctive plant root, chances are that you had no idea how dangerous it could be for our health. That’s because excessive consumption of licorice can cause a number of problems, some of which are irreversible.
For many people, the mere mention of licorice will bring to mind candies such as Twizzlers and Allsorts. Both of these forms of confectionery have been around for more than 100 years. With that in mind, it would probably be fair to say that licorice is a firm favorite of many sweet-toothed individuals.
But not only is licorice a popular form of candy, it’s also been used for its apparent medical benefits for hundreds of years. Apparently, historical figures including Tutankhamun, Alexander the Great, and even Napoleon were fans of the food. Yet it would seem that there’s a dark side to this seemingly innocent sweet.
Botanically speaking, licorice comes from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra – which is perhaps more commonly known as the licorice plant. It’s found in Southern Europe and Western Asia. And while not related to fennel, star anise, and anise, it shares a similar flavor profile with these other plants.
Licorice’s Glycyrrhiza name stems from the ancient Greek word glykos – which means sweet – and rhiza– meaning root. It’s an appropriate name for the ingredient, given the fact that it’s actually around 50 times sweeter than sugar. So it’s not hard to see why it’s remained popular as a candy over the years.
Of all the countries in the world, it’s the Netherlands that can apparently lay claim to the highest consumption of licorice per capita. It’s believed that each Dutch person eats over four pounds of the stuff each year. There it’s known as drop and is available in all kinds of forms including salty and sweet and hard and soft.
That being said, the distinctive flavor of licorice remains a divisive one. The polarizing taste of the plant root is something that Marcia Pelchat from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has researched. And in 2012 she told NBC News, “People either love it or hate it and, as far as I can tell, it’s not a learned like or dislike.”
By “not learned,” Pelchat seemed to be suggesting that people did seem to grow to like the taste of licorice, say through repeated exposure. She said, “I don’t know a specific gene that is associated with liking and disliking licorice. [But] it does seem to be something that people are born with.”
But what is it about the taste of licorice – particularly in its black variety – that people either love or hate? Well one theory that Pelchat has put forward is that your penchant for the flavor is linked to whether you like a certain artificial sweetener. That’s because, glycyrrhizin – which gives licorice its sweetness – is comparable to the taste of saccharin.
Whenever we eat something, our sense of smell and taste kick into action to determine its flavor. And glycyrrhizin – like saccharin – has an incredibly sweet taste which can linger, causing those who dislike it to sometimes wrinkle their nose as a sign of their aversion. Pelchat explained, “What this suggests to me is maybe liking and disliking licorice is related to liking and disliking saccharin.”
Pelchat also suggested that the presence of anethole in licorice could play a part in whether we like it or not. The organic compound is what gives the root – as well as fennel and anise – its recognizable odor. However, the chemical senses expert believes that taste is more important than smell when it comes to our perception of licorice.
In her interview with NBC News, Pelchat explained that people can train themselves to like divisive foods like cilantro or spice. She said, “[Taste] seems to be built-in; it doesn’t require any learning. However, responses to smells seem to be learned.” So while some people might respond negatively to the odor of licorice, it’s the taste that she suspects to be the real deal breaker.
In the end, Pelchat concluded it was probably our biology that determined our response to licorice. She said, “There are lots and lots of genes involved in the perception of [flavor] and of aroma, and we probably all have relatively unique sensory worlds. So that’s just something to keep in mind in talking about individual differences in preference.”
Even though licorice is a divisive flavor, it’s still widely used. Some of the most common uses of the ingredient today include flavoring food, candy, drinks, and tobacco products. It’s also used in liqueurs such as Jagermeister and also in NyQuil, which uses the root to disguise its true medicinal taste.
But masking potential unpleasant flavors isn’t the only medicinal use of licorice. The plant is also valued for its own apparent healing benefits and can come in the form of capsules, teas, liquids, and gels. But it is possible to include too much licorice in your diet, causing potentially hazardous effects on your health.
The use of licorice in medicine goes way back. In fact, it’s thought that the plant is one of the oldest herbal remedies on the planet. It was even used by the ancient Egyptians, when it was enjoyed by pharaohs and prophets in the form of a sweet drink. The potential health benefits of the root were also harnessed by ancient cultures in Assyria, China, and India.
Traditionally, licorice has been used to treat a number of conditions, including circulatory, kidney, liver, and lung diseases. The root extract was also believed to reduce inflammation, settle an upset stomach, and remedy upper respiratory problems. And today, the ingredient is still believed to assist with ailments such as bacterial and viral infections, coughs, and digestive issues.
That being said, there’s not enough scientific research to prove that any of the supposed medical benefits of licorice are indeed effective. Not only that, but there’s some evidence to suggest that eating too much licorice could have a negative impact on health. In fact, excess consumption of the root could even be fatal.
With that in mind, some experts have warned against routinely using licorice as a health supplement. An article published in the Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism journal said as much. It stated, “The daily consumption of licorice is never justified because its benefits are minor compared to the adverse outcomes of chronic consumption.”
Of course, most of us will be aware that too much candy isn’t good for our health. That’s because it tends to contain sugar, too much of which can cause us to gain weight and may even raise the risk of developing high blood pressure. But it would seem that the excessive eating of licorice carries further dangers.
In 2017 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a new warning advising some adults to limit their black licorice intake. The federal agency cautioned that consuming two ounces of the food stuff each day for a fortnight could cause irregularities to heart rhythm in those over 40. This was down to the presence of glycyrrhizin in the plant root extract.
When too much of the sweet compound glycyrrhizin is consumed it can cause potassium in the body to temporarily plummet. This, in turn, can lead to irregular heart rhythms as well as high blood pressure lethargy and swelling. In some extreme cases, excessive consumption of glycyrrhizin can even cause heart failure.
Thankfully, the negative impact of eating excessive amounts of licorice can be reversed. Once consumption halts, potassium levels start to recover and can return to normal in one or two weeks. That being said, the effects on blood pressure and hormonal imbalances caused by the ingredient can take longer to stabilize.
But even so, doctors have been voicing their concerns about licorice for some time. In 2012 researchers from the Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago published a review in the Endocrinology and Metabolism journal warning patients “to avoid excessive licorice intake.”
That’s not to mention a 1993 study that was published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal. That concluded that the “lowest-observed-adverse-effect level” glycyrrhizic acid was 100 mg (0.0035 oz). That is equal to about 1.8 oz of certain licorice candies. With that in mind, researchers claimed “a daily intake of 10 mg (0.00035 oz) glycyrrhizic acids would represent a safe dose for most healthy adults” – or around 0.18 oz of the candies.
Sadly, despite warnings from the scientific community, there’ve been tragic stories that seem to back up concerns that too much licorice can be dangerous. According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine journal in September 2020 a man died after consuming too much licorice.
The 54-year-old man was described in the study as a construction worker from Massachusetts. He fell unconscious at a fast-food restaurant and was subsequently transferred to a hospital. The man fell victim to cardiac arrest and – despite efforts to save his life – died just one day after falling ill.
In their studies, doctors stated that the man had had “a poor diet, consisting primarily of several packages of candy daily.” Three weeks before his death, he had swapped his usual fruit-flavored soft candy for licorice sweets. So the increased intake of glycyrrhizin was potentially responsible for his decline.
Dr. Jacqueline Boykin Henson was among the medical professionals who cared for the man at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has since become a gastroenterology fellow at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And speaking to CNN, Boykin Henson reiterated the dangers linked to excessive licorice consumption.
Boykin Henson said that the patient had not been suffering from any underlying conditions that could have influenced his decline before his death. She noted, “While his diet consisted largely of black licorice, he was active and otherwise generally healthy.” So it appeared that the candy could have been a contributing factor to his cardiac arrest.
Boykin Henson added, “While black licorice is safe in small quantities, it can be dangerous when consumed in large amounts or even in more moderate amounts on a regular basis.” She added that the case of the Massachusetts man had been referred to the FDA to further determine the risks associated with licorice.
Sadly, the case of the Massachusetts man is not a one-off. According to Bill Sullivan, a professor at Indianapolis’ Indiana University School of Medicine, there have been a handful of similar incidents reported in medical journals. In these cases, Sullivan said that the outcome of excessive licorice consumption had been muscle breakdown, hypertension crisis, and even death.
According to Boykin Henson, moderate consumption of the plant root is key. So she urged people to make themselves aware of the risks associated with the ingredient. Boykin Henson told CNN, “Individuals who enjoy black licorice should be cognizant of these potential health effects and should be conscious of the amount they are eating and how often.”
Speaking to anyone who enjoys licorice, Boykin Henson said, “If they experience any symptoms concerning for electrolyte abnormalities such as muscle weakness or abnormal heart rhythms, they should stop taking black licorice. Individuals who already have either of these problems should probably avoid consuming black licorice.”
So while it’s the over-40s that are advised to be especially cautious about excessive black licorice intake, the FDA says that nobody – of any age – should consume large quantities of the ingredient at any one time. What’s more, pregnant women are warned against consuming licorice altogether.
According to a 2017 study by a team of Finnish scientists, consuming vast amounts of licorice while pregnant could be linked to lower IQ, earlier puberty, and behavioral issues in children. There was also evidence to suggest that those who’d been exposed to a lot of glycyrrhizin in the womb had inferior cognitive reasoning skills.
In their report, the Finnish scientists suggested that excessive licorice consumption was comparable to binge drinking in pregnancy, in terms of the effects they had on children. So if women are being advised against drinking while they’re expecting, the report suggested that they should also be warned of the potential risks of eating too much licorice.
According to FDA guidelines, you should seek immediate medical help if your heart rhythm becomes irregular or you experience muscle weakness after eating black licorice. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the ingredient doesn’t always mix well with medications such as oral contraceptives, aspirin, and herbal supplements.
With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor about any medications you’re on before indulging on licorice. Most of all, it’s good to be clued up on the health implications of the substance and moderate your consumption of it. To do this, it’s worth scanning the labels of the products you buy, to double-check no licorice lurks in the ingredients.
Licorice root often crops up as a sweetening agent or flavoring in consumer products such as teas and soft drinks. That being said, the things you may expect to contain the root extract often don’t. Many varieties of black licorice candy, for instance, contain very little of the ingredient at all, using anise oil as an alternative. But always check before you overindulge.