A 54-year-old construction worker in Massachusetts collapsed at a fast food restaurant, and he died in a hospital 32 hours later.
When talking to his family, the doctors learned that he had been eating one or two large packages of licorice candy each day for three weeks. Little did he know that eating that much licorice would stop his heart.
Licorice is a flowering perennial herb that belongs to the pea family that grows in parts of Europe and Asia. The scientific name, Glycyrrhiza glabra, is derived from two Greek terms, “glykos” meaning sweet and “rhiza” for root. The licorice flavor we love comes from the plant’s root.
Licorice has been used since the beginning of recorded history to treat a variety of diseases. The first recorded medicinal uses are found among the ancient Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian cultures. In 1562, English monks brought licorice to Pontefract, West Yorkshire, and a local chemist added sugar to it and sold it as Pontefract Cake. Licorice candy became popular all over England and early settlers brought it to America.
A compound in the licorice extract called glycyrrhizic acid gives us the distinctive flavor. You can find it in a variety of products including candy, throat lozenges, teas, soft drinks, dietary or health supplements and even in some Belgian beers.
Some licorice-flavored foods don’t contain licorice but are flavored with anise oil, which doesn’t have the toxic ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid. You should read the ingredients label on foods to look for licorice or glycyrrhizic acid and limit the amount you eat.
After ingestion, the glycyrrhizic acid is converted to glycyrrhetinic acid. Glycyrrhetinic acid mimics a normal hormone called aldosterone that’s made by the adrenal glands that sit above the kidneys. Aldosterone helps regulate the reabsorption of sodium and water.
When there’s a loss in blood pressure or blood volume, aldosterone helps equalize the body. Too much aldosterone leads to high blood pressure, low blood levels of potassium and an increase in blood volume. If someone eats too much licorice, the glycyrrhetinic acid mimics aldosterone, increasing blood pressure and disrupting the normal heart rhythm because of an imbalance of electrolytes.
The effects of consuming too much licorice can persist for weeks even after you stop eating it.
Scientists who wrote a review about licorice toxicity stated, “The daily consumption of licorice is never justified because its benefits are minor compared to the adverse outcomes of chronic consumption.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved licorice as a food supplement but in 2010 published a consumer advisory titled, “Black Licorice Can Be A Dangerous Treat for Some.” People 40 and older, particularly those with a history of underlying heart disease and/or hypertension are more susceptible to the toxic effects of licorice, as well as people with liver or kidney issues.
The construction worker who died from ingesting too much licorice probably had no idea of its toxicity. So, if you like licorice, stick to the red kind, which has no licorice, or eat small amounts from time to time.