food

What is licorice good for?

food, what is licorice good for?

Licorice has been celebrated for its health benefits for thousands of years. And since the 1600s, it’s been enjoyed as a deliciously sweet candy treat. But what exactly is licorice, where does it come from, and what are the risks of consuming too much of this exotic confection?

Click through and take a closer look at licorice.

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Origins

Licorice is extracted from the roots of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant. Its various health benefits have been known for centuries.

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Earliest mention

Licorice has been around for millennia, and evidence of the plant has been found in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Hindu civilizations. An entry recorded around 2300 BCE in the Sheng-nung Pen-ts’ao Ching, the earliest Chinese materia medica book, mentions licorice as a magical plant that rejuvenated aging men.

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Where does it grow?

In fact, Glycyrrhiza glabra grows in a belt from North Africa across the Middle East and to China. Pictured is licorice root being harvested at Aleppo in Syria around 1900.

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Inspecting the cache

Licorice root was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, although the reason why is still unclear. Pictured is Howard Carter (left) with colleagues in 1922 removing objects from the tomb’s antechamber.

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A favorite with famous figures

Besides Tutankhamun, licorice found favor with Alexander the Great, who ordered his soldiers to chew the roots to keep themselves healthy and hydrated. Julius Caesar was another fan apparently, as was Napoleon Bonaparte, who used the root to clean his teeth.

food, what is licorice good for?

Medieval appeal

Licorice root’s medicinal benefits were well known to ancient civilizations. By the medieval period, its curative properties had also caught the attention of European apothecaries. Extracted licorice juice was bottled and sold throughout the continent, marketed as a cure for a wealth of ailments, infections, and disorders.

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Licorice drink

Licorice juice proved popular with the public, both as a recreational beverage and as a medical potion. It did indeed soothe the stomach and help cleanse the respiratory system.

food, what is licorice good for?

Licorice cake

In time, licorice was used to sweeten breads and cakes and was produced in different shapes and sizes as a candy treat.

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Zan licorice sticks

Zan was a favorite early 19th-century French brand of licorice candy. Sold as a black stick, its flavor was often enhanced with anise and sometimes a touch of menthol too.

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Figaro licorice sticks

By the end of the 19th century, licorice sticks had made their way to the United States. Figaro was a popular Spanish brand.

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Ga-Jol

While soft licorice sticks were sold as candy, products like Ga-Jol, launched in 1933, were becoming more commonplace as a handy remedy to combat a hoarse throat and coughing.

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What are the health benefits of licorice?

So, what are the health benefits of licorice? And what are the risks?

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food, what is licorice good for?

Licorice root

The primary active compound in licorice root is glycyrrhizin, which is responsible for the root’s sweet taste, as well as its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.

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Licorice root extract

Licorice root can be used to treat a number of ailments, including coughs and certain bacterial and viral infections.

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Other treatments

Licorice root extract is also used to combat a variety of skin complaints, including acne and eczema.

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More benefits

The debilitating symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), including acid reflux and heartburn, may also be alleviated by taking licorice root extract.

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Dangers

Glycyrrhizin is, however, also linked to several of the adverse effects of licorice roots. Excessive consumption of glycyrrhizin can trigger high blood pressure, lower potassium levels, weaken muscles, and induce abnormal heart rhythms. It can also cause severe fluid and electrolyte imbalances.

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DGL

To counter these adverse health effects, some products use deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which has had the glycyrrhizin removed. Licorice root supplements (pictured) are typically sold as DGL.

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Licorice capsules

DGL can also be taken as a capsule. However, people should never consume excessive amounts of licorice in food or supplement form.

food, what is licorice good for?

WHO

If in doubt, follow the advice of the World Health Organization. It states that a limit of 100 milligrams per day of glycyrrhizin is “unlikely to cause adverse effects in the majority of adults.”

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food, what is licorice good for?

Licorice tea

That means that you can at least enjoy a cup of licorice root tea now and again, which is a common home remedy for an upset stomach.

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Licorice as a confection

Eaten occasionally, black licorice, which besides glycyrrhizin also contains licoricidin and liquiritin, is a wonderfully refreshing and flavorsome treat. But remember, glycyrrhizin is about 50 times sweeter than sugar! That’s quite a calorie hit if you’re watching your weight.

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food, what is licorice good for?

All shapes and sizes

Licorice candy is sold as wheels (pictured), laces, twists, cakes, and in the aforementioned stick form, among other shapes.

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Liquorice allsorts

One of the most recognized of licorice candy is liquorice allsorts (with “licorice” written in British English). This assorted licorice confection was first produced in Sheffield, England in 1899 by by Geo. Bassett & Co Ltd.

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Bertie Bassett

The Bassett’s company mascot is Bertie Bassett (seen here dancing with ballerinas from the English National Ballet during a promotional appearance). The figure, made up of liquorice allsorts, has become part of British popular culture.

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Dutch drop

Licorice today enjoys worldwide appeal. For example, more than 20% of all candy sold in the Netherlands is drop (the Dutch word for “licorice”).

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“Salty licorice”

In Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, some licorice confectionery is flavored with ammonium chloride, which gives it a salty flavor. This type of candy is known as salmiak or salmiakki.

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Anise plant

And beware! Some licorice candies are flavored not with licorice root but with anise oil—an essential oil from the anise plant (pictured) that has a similar taste. So if you’re after the real McCoy, make sure you read the label.

Sources: (Toms) (Comparative Medicine East and West) (Candy Club) (Healthline) (Medical News Today) (FAO/WHO) (Candy Funhouse) (The Spruce Eats)

See also: How much do you know about marzipan?

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