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Is Licorice Dangerous?

Overindulgence in black licorice, according to the FDA, can cause potassium levels to fall, potentially leading to arrhythmia, a rise in blood pressure or other problems

Licorice. Image courtesy of Flickr user Luca Zappa.

It’s first day of November and kids everywhere are sitting down with stashes of goodies they earned the night before by dressing up, knocking on doors and rattling off the three magic words that win them a treat. And for adults, the leftover Halloween goodies are all on sale, so the time is right to enjoy a treat or two as well. Personally, I love my Good and Plenty, the licorice treats with pink and white sugary shells that spokesperson Choo Choo Charlie uses to make his locomotive zip down the track. But it turns out that Charlie should consider cutting back on his candy habit. According to a consumer awareness update published by the FDA, overindulging in licorice can cause health problems.

In Western medicine, licorice root has been used for hundreds of years as an herbal remedy to treat conditions from common colds to hepatitis. Clinical evidence of its effectiveness, however, is decidedly mixed. While it may soothe your symptoms, licorice more than likely isn’t curing what ails you. But licorice—the root as well as the black-colored iterations of the candy—can potentially do you harm, due to a chemical called glycyrrhetinic acid. When consumed in large quantities, it can cause your body’s potassium levels to fall to the point that some people experience arrhythmia, a rise in blood pressure, swelling and even congestive heart failure. People taking diuretics or medications for high blood pressure should be especially wary as the licorice may inhibit the effectiveness of the drugs. How much is too much? According to the FDA, a diet including 2 ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks might merit a trip to the hospital to have an irregular heart beat checked out. And consuming one to two pounds of licorice candy in one go may cause the blood vessels in your eyes to spasm, causing temporarily impaired vision. Though predominately a concern for persons over 40, it is recommended that everyone should moderate a high licorice intake.

That said, it pays to be an avid label reader. Some licorice products don’t contain extracts from the actual root and instead use anise to achieve a similar flavor. Packaging language such as “licorice-flavored” might serve as a tip-off that you’re not getting the real deal, but take a second to read the fine print on the ingredients list. Furthermore, licorice can also be processed so that the trouble-causing acid is removed, so you can keep an eye out for products marked DGL, or de-glycyrrhizinated licorice.

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