Is liquorice good for you?
Highly distinctive in appearance and flavour, there’s no mistaking a stick of liquorice when you see it.
Some people love it and have done since they were little, and others aren’t so keen on it due to the texture and taste.
Maybe you love it and have wondered how nutritious it actually is or you may not be a fan, but are intrigued to know more about it.
Either way, this article talks you through the ins and outs of black liquorice – the positives, negatives, side effects and all!
What is liquorice?
While the word ‘liquorice’ tends to immediately conjure up images of black bite-sized sweets in our mind, liquorice is actually a plant.1
The liquorice plant, which is related to the pea plant, is native to Southern Asia, but can now be found growing all over the Middle East, southern Europe, and even, Yorkshire.
The roots are used to make the traditional treat we’re all familiar with, which happens to also feature in various soft drinks, snacks, food products and herbal medicines.
Word has it that many centuries ago, it was reportedly drunk by Alexander the Great due to its supposed medicinal qualities.
It’s the anethole content that gives liquorice its distinctive and naturally sweet taste.
Anethole is a compound that’s also found in anise, fennel and numerous herbs.
Black liquorice also contains a compound called glycyrrhizin, which is said to be 50 times sweeter than sugar.
- Liquorice is a plant that’s grown worldwide, including in the UK
- It can be found in sweets, snacks, soft drinks and herbal medicines
- Black liquorice contains a compound called glycyrrhizin, which is 50 times sweeter than sugar
Is liquorice a healthy snack?
As with most things, it’s ok to enjoy liquorice in moderation, but the type that’s coated in sugar or salt isn’t the healthiest choice.
If you can, choose ‘plain’ versions over saltier/sweeter versions and enjoy it in moderation.2
According to guidance published by the NHS, people who are over the age of 40 and have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure or both health conditions shouldn’t eat too much of it.3
Why is liquorice bad for you?
The NHS says that if you are in the 40-and-over age bracket and have heart or blood pressure issues and were to eat 57g of black liquorice every day for at least 2 weeks, you could experience serious health problems, including increased blood pressure and an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia).
This is due to the glycyrrhizin content which, due to the fact it’s so sweet, can change your potassium and sodium levels, which help regulate body fluid.
This change in levels is what can cause blood pressure and heart rhythm issues, as well as fluid retention and muscle weakness.4
However, if you were to stop eating liquorice, your sodium and potassium and fluid levels should go back to normal after a while.
Who should not eat liquorice?
If you are 40+ years old and have heart or blood pressure issues, then it’s best you avoid eating liquorice or eat it in moderation for the reasons listed immediately above.
As we’ve just mentioned, regularly eating lots of liquorice with heart or blood pressure problems can cause some serious side effects, potentially even death.
In fact, in 2019, a 54-year old man in the US died from a heart attack after eating liquorice.
His case has been widely analysed by researchers and academics, with a review in the New England Journal of Medicine concluding that the heart attack was caused by the fact he’d eaten 1 to 2 large bags of black liquorice in the space of 3 weeks.5
You should also avoid black liquorice if you have:
- Hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast, ovarian, uterine, or prostate cancer
- Fluid retention
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Low potassium (hypokalemia)
- Erectile dysfunction6
Pregnant or breastfeeding women shouldn’t have liquorice in any form either due to the fact some studies have found having liquorice during pregnancy can increase the risk of stillbirth.
Black liquorice can also interact with several medications, including:
- ACE inhibitors and diuretics –it may reduce the effectiveness of the medication and increase potassium levels.
- Digoxin – due to the fact it could possibly increase the toxicity of this particular medication.
- Corticosteroids – liquorice may reduce how effective they are.
- Insulin or drugs for diabetes – how they work may be impacted due to liquorice changing blood sugar levels.
- Laxatives – eating liquorice at the same time as laxatives may lead to a loss in potassium.
- MAO inhibitors – liquorice may increase the strength of the medication.
- Oral contraceptives – certain studies have found women may be more susceptible to developing high blood pressure and low potassium levels when taking oral contraceptives and eating liquorice at the same time.
- Medications processed by the liver – liquorice may impact their ability to work properly.
Black liquorice side effects
In addition to impacting people’s potassium, sodium and body levels, black liquorice can also cause several other side effects, including:
Pseudoaldosteronism is a health condition that can lead to people becoming overly sensitive to a hormone within their adrenal cortex.
As a result, they can experience headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, and even heart attacks.
Pseudoaldosteronism may also cause water retention, which can lead to leg swelling and other problems.7,8
Numb arms and legs
All of these side effects are linked to having high levels of glycyrrhizic within the body.
If you experience any of these side effects and have been eating black liquorice, stop eating it immediately and speak to your GP if you are concerned about your health.
- Liquorice that’s not coated in sugar or salt is the healthier option
- If you are over the age of 40 and have heart and blood pressure issues, you should eat it with caution
- If you have these health issues and eat 57g of black liquorice a day for a least 2 weeks you may develop serious health problems, such as increased blood pressure and an irregular heart rhythm
What are the benefits of liquorice?
We’ve explained some of the downsides of regularly eating liquorice.
Other than the taste (if you happen to like it) what are the advantages of consuming liquorice? Are there any?
There are, we’ve listed 9 of them down below.
9 liquorice benefits
Treat stomach bacteria
The H.pylori bacteria has been linked to the development of peptic ulcers in the small intestine, lower oesophagus and stomach.
But a 2016 study in The Brazilian Journal of Infectious Diseases journal reported that liquorice extract can wipe out the H.pylori bacteria which, in turn, can help prevent people from suffering from peptic ulcers.9
Improve dental health
The liquorice root extract has been proven to prevent cavities from forming because it helps keep cavity-causing bacteria, such as Streptococcus mutans,10 at bay.
Research has found that liquorice can kill the bacteria that cause dental decay.
It can also help treat mouth ulcers, according to researchers at the University of Washington.11 12
Heal skin conditions
Liquorice root has antibacterial properties, which has led to it being used to help with skin infections caused by staphylococcus aureus bacteria.
This particular strain of bacteria can cause skin conditions, such as impetigo, with a study carried out in 2010 in Iran finding that liquorice root and leaves are effective at treating this particular skin condition.13
Provide digestive support
Liquorice root extract may help ease digestive discomfort.
According to a 2011 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it was effective at helping people with indigestion.
They took 75mg of liquorice root extract twice a day for 30 days.
By the end of the study, most of their symptoms, such as bloating and loss of appetite, had improved.14
Calm soothe throats
Liquorice root extract is a common ingredient in herbal teas that have been specifically developed to help soothe sore throats.
Researchers in Egypt gave liquorice to one set of patients to gargle with just before an operation.
The study concluded that the liquorice gargle was just as effective as the traditional gargle solution at reducing the level of discomfort caused by having to remove the breathing tube that had been placed in their throats for the operation.15
Treat Hepatitis C
The liver infection, Hepatitis C, can potentially be treated using liquorice root extract due to its glycyrrhizin content.
In Japan, health professionals are giving glycyrrhizin injections to people with chronic hepatitis, who haven’t seen effective results with other treatments.16
We know it can come with its side effects, but there’s nothing quite like the taste of liquorice!
You can drink it you can eat it and it can satisfy the sweetest of sweet tooths!
Just make sure you treat yourself to this bitter yet sweet treat every now and then.
Reduce menopausal symptoms
Liquorice can help with hot flushes, which has been proven by research published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmacological Research.
Menopausal women, who were experiencing hot flushes, were given 330mg of liquorice root extract 3 times a day.
The number of flushes they had and their severity had reduced by the end of the study.17
Liquorice root may slow down the rate at which chronic bronchitis develops in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Studies carried out in Taiwan, found that the glycyrrhizic, asiatic and oleanolic acids found in liquorice root have an antioxidant effect that protects bronchial cells.
As a result, it was concluded that liquorice may help slow down the progression of COPD when used with standard medical treatments.
Further research is required to further evidence this initial research.18
- The health benefits that have been linked to liquorice are widespread
- They include killing the bacteria that can cause dental cavities and peptic ulcers
- It can also be used to ease hot flushes, sore throats and indigestion
Many people merely think of liquorice as being nothing more than a children’s sweet, but its make-up is incredibly powerful; powerful enough to heal certain health conditions.
At the same time, eating too much of it can cause issues, some extremely serious, especially for people with pre-existing health conditions.
Just be mindful if/when next time you have some because it’s a sweet treat that really does pack a serious punch, on multiple levels.
Now that you've read about liquorice, why not have a go at making some liquorice, coconut, honey and sea salt ice cream?
Last updated: 22 September 2021