Imagine a substance that’s fifty times sweeter than sugar and flexible enough to use as a shoelace or a jump rope. Just like plastic, this substance can be shaped into tiny bears, cats, Scottie dogs, or even Volkswagen Beetles. But, unlike plastic, it can be chewed up and swallowed. It sounds like a candy from the future, but it’s so old that it was found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. It’s Licorice, which is a flavorful herb that has been used in food and medicinal remedies for thousands of years.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a Mediterranean perennial plant having light blue flowers, feathery leaves, and a sweet, distinctively flavored root. Its generic name, “Glycyrrhiza,” comes from the ancient Greek words glycos riza, meaning “sweet root.”1 It has grown in the wild in many Middle Eastern, European, and western Asian countries.
Licorice is 50 times sweeter than table sugar, though some researchers have placed it at more than 150 times sweeter than sucrose. This intense sweetness can be traced to Glycyrrhizic acid, a multi-purpose molecule that consists of two sugar moieties. Glycyrrhizic acid, one of the main components found in Licorice root, is believed to contribute to the herb’s healing properties. The varied properties of this molecule have led to the surprising mix of products containing licorice today: medicines, cough syrups, herbal supplements, gum, drinks, and candy.
History of licorice as a healing herb
Licorice root has been used since ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times in the West, and since the second and third centuries B.C in the East. Hindus, Chinese, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and eventually the Greeks and Romans all were acquainted with its sweet flavor. Egyptians used it as the main ingredient of a very well known drink, called erksoos,2 which is still popular in modern times. In Japan, the oldest specimen of licorice introduced from China in the middle of the eighth century still exists in the Imperial Storehouse. Ancient soldiers found that if they chewed the root on long marches, it would prevent thirst. The benefits of licorice were also known by physicians in the Middle East, so they prescribed it as a medicine. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the famous physician and philosopher, said that: “the infused licorice purifies the voice and the trachea, and is useful in disorders and diets.”3 He used this plant in treating his patients nine centuries ago. Greeks and Romans ate licorice to treat coughs, asthma, colds, and sore throats. Today it’s still a popular flavor for cough drops and other medicines. During the Ottoman Empire Eastern Turks used to make a drink called “Meyan serbeti” by combining licorice and water. Even today it is sold by the street vendors in Southeast Turkey.
Medicinal uses and indications
In both the East and West, licorice has been used to treat a variety of illnesses ranging from the common cold to liver disease. This herb has long been valued as a demulcent (soother) and expectorant (which rids phlegm and mucous from the respiratory tract). It is particularly popular for relief from respiratory ailments such as allergies, bronchitis, colds, and sore throats. It is also used as a treatment for stomach problems, diseases of the skin, relief from stress, and diseases of the liver.
Today’s studies and findings have revealed the amazing properties of licorice, which will be a remedy in medicine for different diseases beside pharmaceutical products.
• Animal studies and trials in humans have supported the value of licorice for stomach ulcers. “If I had an ulcer, the first thing I’d go for is licorice,” says James Duke, Ph.D., botanist at the US Department of Agriculture. .Dozens of studies, he says, endow licorice root with formidable anti ulcer properties.4 Many studies have shown the licorice is just as effective as the commonly used ulcer drug Tagamet in healing ulcers.
• The Journal of Drugs in Dermatology July edition reports that licorice, among other natural products, is very effective for use in treatment of rosacea, atopic dermatitis, irritated skin, drug-induced skin eruptions, and psoriasis.
• Licorice is showing well in studies of its use in heart treatment. In recent research, people with high cholesterol experienced significant reductions in total cholesterol after taking licorice root extracts for one month. Systolic blood pressure was reduced by 10%. These measures returned to their previous elevated levels when participants stopped taking the licorice supplements.
• Researchers at the University of California have been studying licorice root to prevent cavities. Studies which have been done so far have shown that compounds isolated from licorice root could be inhibitors for microbes to cause tooth decay. “More studies are needed before it is proven that the compounds effectively fight cavities in humans. If further studies show promise, the licorice compounds could eventually be used as cavity-fighting components in mouthwash or toothpaste” says Wenyuan Shi, Ph.D, a microbiologist at UCLA’s School of Dentistry.”5
• Some people in the USA face a serious oral problem which is the severe pain in the mouth called “canker sores”. Dentists have been trying different types of treatments for this disease. Studies have shown that the best result received the treatment that is used the adhesive patch with the licorice extract.6
Even though there are many benefits to using licorice, at high doses there may be some side effects such as high blood pressure and low blood potassium levels, and fluid retention because of glycyrrhizin. Some licorice root extracts, with the glycyrrhizin removed, are known as deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). This form retains many of licorice’s healing properties and is the better choice for long term use. Scientific studies have shown that DGL reduces inflammation and is as effective as prescription drugs for gastric ulcers without side effects. Natural health experts Phyllis and James Balch reported to naturalnews.com that “it’s best not to eat more than three ounces a day and it should not be used on a daily basis more than seven days in a row by persons with diabetes, heart diseases and high blood pressure.”
Food and other uses
Licorice root has a long history of being used to make candy. Two licorice candies that originated in England are Allsorts and Pontefract Cakes, which have been around since Elizabethan times when licorice was grown in the Pontefract district of Yorkshire. Allsorts are pastel-colored and round-square candies. Pontefract Cakes are soft, coin-shaped black licorice. Today, some of these candies are decorated with a stamp of Pontefract Castle. In Finland, red and black licorice is shaped like little smoking pipes, while in Germany it’s shaped into wheels. Salty licorice, shaped in coin-diamond, is very popular in Holland. Another popular Dutch candy is Katje, shaped with black cats and made of strong-flavored licorice . Although it seems odd, many flavors such as mint, coffee, cherry, honey and chocolate are combined with licorice to make tasty treats. Unfortunately, many American candies that are called licorice actually contain no licorice at all. Licorice, fennel, and anise all have an essential oil called anethole, which gives them a distinctive taste. Many “licorice” candies are actually flavored with anise instead. Next time you eat licorice, check the package to see if licorice extract is one of the ingredients.
Although licorice is something to eat or drink, some of its more interesting uses have little to do with food. Much of the natural licorice grown today ends up flavoring tobacco instead of candy. But what about the parts of licorice that remain once the flavor is removed?
One of the products of licorice roots is a foaming liquid. This can sometimes be added as a flavoring in some beverages, but an unexpected use for the same liquid is found in fire extinguishers. It can extinguish fires in oil tanks, where other traditional methods are unsuccessful.
Even after every drop of liquid is removed from roots, they’re still useful. Pulp mills blend the root’s fibers with other ingredients to make boxes and wallboards. Walls with only a half-inch-thick piece of this fiber board are better insulators from heat, cold, and sound than six-inch walls of brick, stone, or concrete.
Until several decades, Scientists have emphasized only how plants do photosynthesis other than informing or searching other amazing functions. Today, scientists have been studying plants in order to get more useful benefits from them. The licorice plant needs further research in order for us to discover other benefits to human being’s ecology. In the light of explored results about licorice, numerous ways of using this plant have been proven and caused people to ponder about how a simple plant is able to carry the varied properties in its roots. It is basically wood, but sweeter than sugar.
Almost every day humankind faces a new health problem which can never be healed by medicine, nor can they determine the root cause. Today, by understanding the amazing properties of the Licorice plant, we should explore the earth for other plants in search for what has been created and its benefits to us. There are surely countless other unknown and useful plants waiting to be discovered and used for their real purpose of living.
Even though there have been many promising findings, there are ongoing debates in the scientific community regarding the value and side effects of licorice products. Further studies are needed.
Despite its long history, licorice may yet surprise us. Its presence in the candy aisle, at the pharmacy, among the natural food products, and on the checkout stand attests to the complexity and rich chemistry of this sweet beneficial root.
Sumeyra Dural Cokavci has a Master’s degree in Nuclear Physics, Georgia State University, Atlanta.
1. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook: By James A. Duke p:194
2. Toxicology and clinical pharmacology of herbal products By Melanie Johns Cupp, p: 223
4. Food--Your Miracle Medicine By Jean Carper p:177