Eating too much black licorice can be dangerous. Should you be worried?
The candy can contain a chemical compound called glycyrrhizin, which is derived from the root of a low-growing shrub found mostly in Greece, Turkey and Asia. The risk posed by glycyrrhizin is real and has prompted concern from the FDA.
Licorice lovers beware: eating large amounts of black licorice might be harmful to your heart health — but as long as you enjoy the treat in moderation, health experts say there’s little to worry about.
The candy can contain a chemical compound called glycyrrhizin, which is derived from the root of a low-growing shrub found mostly in Greece, Turkey and Asia, according to a consumer alert issued by the FDA in 2017. Glycyrrhizin can cause the body’s potassium levels to fall, which can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, swelling, lethargy and congestive heart failure.
However, if you’re eating a mainstream version of the treat, your risk of adverse health effects is low, according to Craig Hopp, the natural products expert at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Hopp said that while there is a legitimate concern about consuming real licorice root, many candies don’t pose a threat.
Many licorice-flavored products made in the United States are made with anise oil, which has the same smell and taste, according to the FDA.
“The candy people get at Halloween likely contains no actual licorice root,” Hopp said. “It’s just artificial flavoring. Thus, it contains no glycyrrhizin.”
Twizzlers Black Licorice Twists, for example, gets its flavor from licorice extract, which is derived from licorice root as well as added natural and artificial flavors, according to Jeff Beckman, a spokesperson for Hershey which produces Twizzlers.
“The dried extract that we add to black Twizzlers contains a small amount of glycyrrhizin that is far below the maximum amount the FDA permits in soft candy like licorice,” Beckman said.
When a man sued Hershey, blaming Twizzlers for his heart problems, at least one expert found the claim dubious.
“One food choice doesn’t cause heart disease. It would take a string of poor consumption choices and possibly genetics, along with a handful of other factors about this man’s lifestyle,” TODAY Food quoted registered nurse Emily Clarke in 2018.
But the risk posed by glycyrrhizin is real and has prompted concern from the FDA.
“Consumers need to be aware that there is a risk with licorice candy,” said Peter Cassell, a spokesperson for the FDA. “The biggest thing to remember is you don’t want to be consuming anything in large quantities.”
Cassell noted that many common foods can become toxic in large quantities — including nutmeg, which can become a hallucinogen, or the alkaloids in potatoes, which can be toxic.
Especially for those 40 years old and older, eating 2 ounces of black licorice a day for at least two weeks could throw off heart rhythms, the FDA warned. FDA says no one, young or old, should eat large quantities of black licorice at a time and advises anyone who has an irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness to stop eating the candy immediately.
Potassium levels should return to normal once your consumption of black licorice stops, Cassell said.
The FDA received at least one report of a consumer having health problems as a result of eating black licorice. Cassell said the warning about licorice still stands, but emphasized that overdosing on licorice “is not a widespread issue.”
The most important Halloween candy safety tip is to check that it is sealed, Cassell said.
“We want to make sure that people should check to make sure their candy is sealed and that it doesn’t show any signs of tampering,” Cassell said. “If consumers have any problems or notice anything there’s a way to report that to FDA and they should do that.”
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