Liquorice

salmiak

licorice

Liquorice [lik-uh-rish] or licorice is the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra (a legume) from which a somewhat sweet flavor can be extracted. It is native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, and is not related to anise, star anise, or fennel, which are the sources of similar-tasting compounds. The word ‘liquorice’ is derived from the Greek ‘glukurrhiza’ (‘sweet root’).

The flavor of liquorice comes mainly from a sweet-tasting compound called anethole, an aromatic, unsaturated ether compound also found in anise, fennel, and several other herbs. Much of the sweetness in liquorice comes from glycyrrhizin, a compound  30 to 50 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).

Liquorice flavor is found in a wide variety of candies. In the UK and US these are usually sweet, but most of the taste is reinforced by aniseed oil, and the actual content of liquorice is very low. In continental Europe however, strong, salty liquorice candies are popular.

In the Netherlands, where liquorice candy (‘drop’) is one of the most popular forms of sweet, only a few of the many forms that are sold contain aniseed, although mixing it with mint, menthol or with laurel is quite popular. Mixing it with ammonium chloride (a type of salt) is also popular, and is known as Salmiak, but mixing it with table salt creates what is probably the most popular liquorice, known in the Netherlands as zoute drop.

Pontefract, a historic market in Yorkshire, was the first place where liquorice mixed with sugar began to be used as a sweet in the same way it is in the modern day. Pontefract Cakes were originally made there. In Yorkshire and Lancashire it is colloquially known as Spanish, supposedly because Spanish monks grew liquorice root at Rievaulx Abbey near Thirsk. Liquorice flavoring is also used in soft drinks, and in some herbal teas where it provides a sweet aftertaste. The flavor is common in medicines to disguise unpleasant flavours.

Liquorice is popular in Italy (particularly in the South) and Spain in its natural form. The root of the plant is simply dug up, washed and chewed as a mouth freshener. Throughout Italy unsweetened liquorice is consumed in the form of small black pieces made only from 100% pure liquorice extract; the taste is bitter and intense. In Calabria (southern Italy), a popular liqueur is made from pure liquorice extract. Liquorice is also very popular in Syria where it is sold as a drink. Dried liquorice root can be chewed as a sweet.

Chinese cuisine uses liquorice as a culinary spice for savory foods. It is often employed to flavor broths and foods simmered in soy sauce. Other herbs and spices of similar flavor include anise, star anise, tarragon, and fennel. It is also the main ingredient of a very well known soft drink in Egypt, called ‘erk-soos.

Sticks of liquorice typically have a diameter between two and ten millimetres. Although they resemble plain wooden sticks, they are soft enough to be chewed on. They used to be popular among Dutch, Danish, and Swedish children. In Lancashire and Yorkshire in the early 1950s & 1960s, wooden sticks of liquorice, around 8mm diameter, were readily available (and popular) in sweet shops. Also in Essex during late 50s. They were bought as ‘sticks of liquorice,’ and they were chewed by young children. The wood was yellowish, and fibrous when chewed. Liquorice root can have either a salty or sweet taste. The thin sticks are usually quite salty and sometimes taste like salmiak (salty liquorice), whereas the thick sticks are usually quite sweet, with a salty undertone. Liquorice root is also widely available in Denmark.

The compound glycyrrhizic acid, found in liquorice, is now routinely used throughout Japan for the treatment and control of chronic viral hepatitis. Recent studies indicate that glycyrrhizic acid disrupts latent Kaposi sarcoma (a tumor caused by Human Papillomavirus, HPV), exhibiting a strong anti-viral effect. The Chinese use licorice to treat Tuberculosis. However, large doses of glycyrrhizinic acid can lead to hypokalemia (low blood-potassium) and serious increases in blood pressure.

These side effects stem from the inhibition of an enzyme and subsequent increase in activity of cortisol on the kidney. This particular enzyme inactivates cortisol in the kidney; thus, liquorice’s inhibition of it makes the concentration of cortisol appear to increase. Cortisol acts at the same receptor as the hormone aldosterone in the kidney and the effects mimic aldosterone (a steroid) excess. To decrease the chances of these serious side effects, deglycyrrhizinated liquorice preparations are available. The disabling of similar enzymes in the gut by glycyrrhizinic acid and glycyrrhetinic acid also causes increased mucus and decreased acid secretion.

As it inhibits Helicobacter pylori (a pathogen of the gut), liquorice is used as an aid for healing stomach and duodenal ulcers, and in moderate amounts may soothe an upset stomach. Liquorice can be used to treat all manner of gastroenterological ailments as it is antispasmodic in the bowels.

The compounded carbenoxolone is derived from liquorice. Some studies indicate that it inhibits an enzyme that is highly expressed in liver and fat tissues, where it plays a role in metabolism, and in the brain, where the same enzyme is involved in stress response that has been associated with age-related mental decline.

Much liquorice production goes toward flavoring, sweetening and conditioning tobacco products. Liquorice adds a mellow, sweet woody flavor and enhances the taste of tobacco. The burning liquorice also generates some toxins found in the smoke, and the glycyrrhizin expands the airways, which allows users to inhale more smoke.

Excessive consumption of liquorice or liquorice candy is known to be toxic to the liver and cardiovascular system, and may produce hypertension and edema. In occasional cases blood pressure has increased with excessive consumption of liquorice tea, but such occasions are rare and reversible when the herb is withdrawn. Most cases of hypertension from liquorice were caused by eating too much concentrated liquorice candy. Doses as low as 50 grams (2 oz) of liquorice daily for two weeks can cause a significant rise in blood pressure. Comparative studies of pregnant women suggest that excessive amounts of liquorice (100g a week) may also adversely affect both IQ and behavior traits of offspring.

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