Black licorice: Love it or hate it?

9 April, 2021

What is black licorice?

Black licorice is a bit like Vegemite. You either love it or hate it. But this oft-maligned taste is huge in some parts of the world with millions addicted to its dark charms (Scandinavia, we’re looking at you). To celebrate National Licorice Day on April 12, let’s delve deeper into this polarising candy. 

Black licorice is a confection flavoured with the extract of the roots of the licorice plant (the glycyrrhiza glabra). The extract is combined with sugar or other sweeteners plus ingredients like gelatin and molasses – which provides the black colour – and is then heated to 135 °C and poured into moulds. The resulting sweets are then glazed to make them shiny. 

Historians believe the development of black licorice as a confection may have started when licorice root extract was mixed with honey to make throat lozenges for medicinal purposes.

What gives black licorice its distinctive flavour?

We can thank the compound glycyrrhiza (which is derived from the Greek words “glykos” (sweet) and “rhiza” (root) for licorice’s unique taste. The extract – which is a whopping 50 times sweeter than sugar – has long been used as a herbal remedy for ailments ranging from stomach issues and sore throats to heartburn and coughs.

Licorice root extract may also aid diabetes, reduce menopause symptoms, boost weight loss and help skin conditions including acne and eczema.

However, glycyrrhizin does have has a dark side. Excessive levels can cause potassium levels in the body to fall as well as increase blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms and muscle weakness. In fact, in 2020, a 54-year-old Massachusetts construction worker’s daily black licorice consumption ended up costing him his life. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that if you’re 40 or older, “eating two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks could land you in the hospital with an irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia”. 

It advised all ages to avoid eating large amounts of black licorice in one go and urged those individuals with high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, kidney disease or low potassium levels to avoid glycyrrhizin-containing licorice products altogether.

What’s with the Scandi licorice-obsession?

Browse the confectionary aisle of any Scandinavian (and Dutch and German) supermarket and you’ll see countless brands of salmiak or salty licorice. This is black licorice which has been flavoured with the salty chemical compound ammonium chloride (um, yum?!) to add an astringent, salty taste. 

One of our favourite producers of salty licorice is the pleasingly-named Scandi Candy.

How to eat it?

So, you need a lesson on how to eat lollies? Just joking. But black licorice can also be used to make lots of tasty dishes. Why not?

Where can I buy black licorice around Chatswood?

Grab a pack at Woolies (there’s a Woolworths Metro at Chatswood Interchange).