Love Black Licorice? You Might Want to Know Its Health Risks Before Eating Too Much

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"Is black licorice bad for you?" seems to be a common question come Halloween. And if indulging in this spooky treat is your favorite part of the holiday, you might want to be a little careful. Like all things in life, moderation is key when it comes to the chewy candy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning adults over the age of 40 to watch their black licorice consumption, because too much of the old-fashioned favorite could potentially land them in the hospital. 

Why is black licorice bad for you?

Adults should limit themselves to no more than two ounces (about three 1-inch pieces) of black licorice per day, according to the FDA's consumer update. Why? Because chowing down on more than that can lead to irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmia. 

The cause of this unexpected health risk is glycyrrhizin, a sweetening compound in licorice that causes potassium levels in the body to drop dramatically. When this happens, people can experience high blood pressure, edema (swelling due to excess water), lethargy, and heart failure, in addition to irregular heartbeats.

Linda Katz, MD, says the FDA received a report last year of a black-licorice fan experiencing unspecified problems after munching a few too many pieces of licorice. Previous studies have indicated that black licorice could have a negative effect on people who have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure. Fortunately, Dr. Katz says potassium levels can usually be restored and there are few, if any, permanent health problems.

For pregnant women, the health risks of too much black licorice are even more alarming. A 2002 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at whether black licorice candy consumption affected gestation, and what they found was that eating too much black licorice corresponded with a higher likelihood of a preterm birth. 

While the negative relationship between licorice and blood pressure has been well documented, few studies have looked at the long-term effects of black licorice on a fetus. In 2017, researchers in Finland published a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found that children of mothers who consumed large amounts of black licorice while pregnant tested lower on cognitive reasoning tests than children whose mothers consumed little or no black licorice. The difference between the groups of children was about seven IQ points. 

Instead of asking, "How much licorice is safe?" it seems that pregnant women should just abstain from black licorice in any form. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recommends that prengnat women refrain from taking licorice root supplements and limit their consumpion, but given the evidence, it may be better to quit black licorice entirely.

Is licorice bad for you? Here's how to be safe about it.

All this talk about black licorice health risks may have you wondering, "Is licorice bad for you? It can't be all bad, right?" It would be wrong to say licorice side effects are all negative — one bite won't kill you, or cause you to go into labor early. In some cases, which we'll cover later, black licorice and licorice root can actually be beneficial. But it's important to know what too much licorice can do to your body. When it comes to black licorice, FDA recommendations for how to safely enjoy it are as follows:

To avoid the entire question of whether licorice is good for you, just ditch the glycyrrhizin. It's common for manufacturers to use anise oil as a replacement for licorice flavor, in which case you don't have to worry about eating too much licorice. These products don't actually contain any licorice, and therefore no glycyrrhizin. Licorice root supplements without glycyrrhizin — aka deglycyrrhizinated licorice — are also available at health stores.

Licorice Health Benefits: When is licorice good for you?

If you associate licorice with candy (yes, strands of Twizzlers are licorice), you may be surprised to learn that it has a long history of being used as medicine to treat many health conditions. In a 2012 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found that deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) was successful in treating dyspepsia. A 2011 study published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology found licorice root was helpful in regulating cortisol, a stress hormone. Licorice might also be beneficial in alleviating annoying PMS and period symptoms, according to a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One

But all this good news comes with a warning: Much more research is needed to determine if licorice is actually an effective treatment for any of the above conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health. A 2012 review published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism made clear that many Americans aren't well aware of the health risks of too much licorice, warning that the FDA needed to take a stronger stance on regulating licorice products. 

For a safe and healthy Halloween, there are dozens of allergy-free Halloween candies you can enjoy if you want to stay away from black licorice. If, however, you're careful, there's no reason why you can't enjoy a rare licorice treat. The idea of eating too much black licorice shouldn't be the scariest thing this Halloween.

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