Licorice Root: The Source Of Much Love…And Hate

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Licorice has been used as a medicine since the time of the Ancient Egyptians who chewed it and made tea with it. The Greeks would learn of licorice root from the Scythians and referred to it as Scythian root. Licorice root was used by the Romans as well. The Roman author and naturalist Pliny recommended licorice for clearing the voice and claimed that it could alleviate thirst and hunger. Dioscorides would instruct troops of Alexander the Great to use licorice root for relieving their thirst when they had limited access to water.

It is said that Buddha consumed licorice. Hannibal’s troops enjoyed licorice as they marched over the Alps and it is what blackened the teeth of Ivan the Terrible. The Chinese have used it for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments. Later on in history, Napoleon would be a fan of licorice root and chewed so much of it that it blackened his teeth.

The origin of licorice is in Southern Asia. From there, it spread into the Middle East and then into Southern Europe before spreading throughout the continent. It would eventually get to England. The first historical mention of licorice being grown in England relates to a crop in Pontefract in Yorkshire. The licorice was being cultivated at a monastery there in the 17th century. This monastery was also the first place that licorice was used as a sweet by combining it with sugar.

Licorice flavor profile

You either love it or hate it – there’s little in-between with the flavor of licorice root. The highly controversial nature of licorice’s flavor stems from its pungent camphor notes. There is a bitterness along with a sweetness that is similar that of anise and fennel. It’s a polarizing taste for sure.

Health benefits of licorice root

There are several health benefits that you can get from licorice root due to the potent compounds it contains. These compounds include:

  • Anethole: Anethole is a compound in licorice root that is largely responsible for its flavor. It is also found in other spices such as anise seed. It has antioxidant properties, which means that it is beneficial for deactivating free radicals to keep them from causing damage.
  • Glycyrrhizin: Licorice root contains a powerful compound called glycyrrhizin that may be responsible for most of its medicinal benefits.

You can use licorice root to treat or prevent many health conditions including;

  • Stomach problems: The glycyrrhizin in licorice root is beneficial for suppressing H. pylori bacteria. This bacteria is known for causing peptic ulcers; the glycyrrhizin can help to treat the ulcers and speed up the body’s healing processes in repairing the stomach lining. Licorice root can also protect the stomach lining from H. pylori, thus preventing the ulcers from occurring in the first place. Along with the above benefits, licorice root also has antimicrobial properties that may make it useful for preventing foodborne illness.
  • Respiratory issues: Licorice root can help the body to produce healthy mucus, which is important for a functioning respiratory system.
  • Cancer: Polyphenols contained in licorice root have been found to cause cell death in cancer cells.

Common uses of licorice root

Licorice flavoring is known primarily for its use in making candy. Licorice candy can either be sweet as in British candies, or salty like Dutch zoute drops. Other Dutch candies require licorice to be mixed with mint or menthol. Licorice root is used as a flavoring for Calabrese liqueurs and the root itself is chewed to treat bad breath in Italy and Spain. Elsewhere in the world, licorice is used to flavor medicine as a way to mask unpleasant tastes. It is also used in herbal teas and for making sodas.