The FDA advisory about licorice is a few years old, but the memes about it will live on forever. “FDA issues warning about black licorice for halloween,” one headline read. And then below that, in a screenshot taken for posterity, somebody comments that the warning must have been “It tastes like shit.”
The warning was actually that candy made with licorice root can mess with your blood pressure. It’s no longer up on the FDA’s website (having been issued in 2017) but the archived copy states:
If you’re 40 or older, eating 2 ounces of black licorice a day for at least two weeks could land you in the hospital with an irregular heart rhythm or arrhythmia.
FDA experts say black licorice contains the compound glycyrrhizin, which is the sweetening compound derived from licorice root. Glycyrrhizin can cause potassium levels in the body to fall. When that happens, some people experience abnormal heart rhythms, as well as high blood pressure, edema (swelling), lethargy, and congestive heart failure.
FDA’s Linda Katz, M.D., says last year the agency received a report of a black licorice aficionado who had a problem after eating the candy. And several medical journals have linked black licorice to health problems in people over 40, some of whom had a history of heart disease and/or high blood pressure.
Katz says potassium levels are usually restored with no permanent health problems when consumption of black licorice stops.
Yes, black licorice tastes terrible to many people. But there is a balance in the universe. Some weirdos happen to love the stuff, and as a result there is always somebody around, often a grandpa or an uncle, who is happy to eat the black jelly beans you don’t want.
Full disclosure, I am one of those weirdos. I always hated black licorice, until one day I didn’t. If I buy an eight-ounce bag of Trader Joe’s soft black licorice, I have to pace myself—just a few pieces a day—the way some people do with chocolate. Invite me to your Halloween parties. I’ll take your licorice and you can have my Hershey bars.
(For the FDA follower on Twitter who wrote that “licorice is a flavor, not a color,” I feel obliged to note that the licorice plant has lent its name to a number of chewy American candies. These come in various colors, with the licorice-flavored ones in black and often berry-flavored ones in red.)
How much licorice is too much?
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Licorice fans, before you panic, check if you’re actually eating real licorice. If your candy is flavored with anise oil, you’re in the clear. If it includes actual licorice root (fun fact: licorice is a plant), keep reading.
The UK’s National Health Service writes that eating “more than 57g (2 ounces) of black liquorice a day for at least 2 weeks could lead to potentially serious health problems.” (Another fun fact: they spell it with a Q over there.) The American Heart Association concurs, and shares the story of a man who died after switching from red to black licorice.
Don’t panic: he ate a large amount of the stuff on a daily basis, and had other health conditions that predisposed him to heart problems, so nobody is saying that an occasional licorice treat will kill you. But the herb interacts with your body’s chemistry in a way that may make it dangerous in large amounts. Licorice is also known or suspected to interact with many different types of medications.
So if you are the black licorice eater in your family, consider rationing your haul so you don’t eat tons of it for weeks straight. Even though you really want to.