Licorice is one of the world’s favorite flavors. It has been used in foods and medicine since ancient times. Licorice is actually an herbal shrub and the root is used for the distinctive taste found in soft drinks, food products, snacks and herbal medicines.
If you are a lover of black licorice, be careful how much you eat. The popular sweetener used in candies and supplements comes from the root of the licorice plant and contains a compound called glycyrrhizin that can build up in your body to dangerous levels for your health.
Eating more than two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks or more can lead to serious health problems that might include high blood pressure and an irregular heart rhythm. The excessive amount of black licorice leads to low potassium levels, which interferes with the body’s electrolyte balance and could cause heart irregularities, swelling, muscle weakness, tiredness and possibly heart failure.
Even smaller amounts over time might have an impact, especially if you are 40 or older, have a history of high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, heart disease or low potassium levels. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid licorice foods and supplements to prevent negative impacts on their pregnancy and newborn.
Not all licorice-flavored foods contain this compound. Some believe anise and licorice are the same because of the similarity in taste, but they are different. Many licorice-flavored foods and beverages use anise for flavoring instead of licorice, so they would not have this compound.
Products that do contain licorice might not disclose how much of the glycyrrhizin compound is contained per ounce, but the Food and Drug Administration regulates that soft licorice candy contains no more than 3.1%, which is considered a safe amount. Licorice candy that is manufactured in the United States must comply with this regulation, but should still be eaten in moderation.
Black licorice candy is the only type of licorice that would contain this compound. Red and other fruit-flavored “licorice” candy do not contain any licorice, which is why they are called twists, vines or Twizzlers instead of licorice.
Even though licorice is best known for candy and other foods, it can be found in many other products — including teas, alcohol, tobacco products and even cosmetics.
Licorice root is also sold as a dietary supplement in the form of capsules, powders, tinctures, topical gels and teas. The Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate or verify supplements for purity, effectiveness or accuracy of labeling.
Although many of these supplements claim medicinal and other health values, the National Institutes of Health states there is insufficient data to determine whether licorice is effective in treating any medical condition.
Another concern is that licorice, whether in food or supplement form, might interact with other medications including blood thinners, blood pressure medications, statin cholesterol-lowering drugs, estrogen-based medications, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
If you like licorice or use a supplement, talk with your health care provider before consuming licorice in any form.
Lisa McCoy is a family and consumer-sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.