Licorice: The Aromatic Sweetening Agent

Author: Henrik Aulbach

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Lesezeit: 7 min

Licorice has fascinated humans for millennia. It is used as a medicinal plant in herbal medicine and as licorice in the kitchen. Moreover, licorice boasts a range of other properties that underline its significance in the plant world and human history.

Occurrence of Licorice Beyond Licorice Factories

To "rasp licorice" is a common phrase for making something sound better than it is. We extract the immensely popular candy licorice from the licorice root. However, its valuable ingredients also make this plant a fascinating medicinal plant.

Real licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is native to the Mediterranean region and extends to West Asia. This plant species proves to be a true sun lover. It prefers the sun, but well-protected from the wind. Real licorice can thrive in the swampy areas of Russia as well as in the dry regions of China and the Middle East.

However, it takes about three years for the first licorice roots to be harvested. Then the roots are strong enough for processing. The primary cultivation area for real licorice is the Middle East.

Licorice belongs to the families of legumes and beans, just like beans, peas, and peanuts. While these plants focus on seeds, for licorice, it's the roots that matter. 

Ingredients of Licorice

Licorice roots not only provide the extract used to create licorice candy (more on that later). The roots are also responsible for the medicinal effects. The crucial ingredients of licorice roots are triterpene saponins, primarily in the form of glycyrrhizin. This substance is 50 times sweeter than sugar and responsible for the exceptional sweetness of licorice. Up to 15% glycyrrhizin can be found in the roots.

Furthermore, the roots are rich in flavonoids and coumarins, which among other things contribute to the yellow coloration of the roots. Altogether, there are said to be up to 400 different components in licorice.

How is Licorice Made from Licorice Root?

Licorice is obtained by thickening licorice root juice. First, licorice roots are boiled with water and then pressed. Steam can also be used after the filtering process. This creates an aromatic decoction that is traditionally used as a remedy. However, by adding the following ingredients to the decoction, delicious licorice is produced:

  • Flour
  • Gelling agent
  • Flavors
  • Sugar

Effects of Licorice: Relief for Stomach and Intestines

As a medicinal plant, Licorice offers a wide range of effects. The active ingredients are believed to have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce the production of stomach acid, although these mechanisms of action are not yet fully understood. Nevertheless, Licorice is now used in gastritis therapy. Particularly noteworthy is that the anti-inflammatory effect is not achieved through inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis, but apparently by directing leukocytes (white blood cells) to the site of inflammation. This mechanism of action is medically quite interesting.

An antiviral and anti-ulcerogenic mode of action is also suspected. Licorice root is also said to be able to liquefy mucus in the respiratory tract (expectorant). Colds with cough can be relieved in this way, and medicinal teas containing Licorice root are prescribed even here. Most commonly, Licorice root is used for stomach complaints like gastritis and for respiratory issues.

Dried, crushed, or grated, Licorice root and its shoots can be used to prepare a tea. Cold infusion is also possible.

In ancient times, people knew and used the plant as a remedy. Today, many studies delve into the mechanisms of Licorice's effects. The medically active potential of Licorice root was recognized with the title of “Medicinal Plant of the Year,” awarded to it in 2012.

In Europe, Licorice root is mainly used in medicinal teas for colds or stomach complaints. The areas of application are more diverse in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Here, essential oils of Licorice root are used, as well as dried Licorice roots, plant extracts, and the like. They help, for example, with inflammation and immune regulation.

Medically Recognized Areas of Application 

For a certain active ingredient to be used in conventional medicine, its efficacy and safety must be extensively demonstrated through large-scale studies. A substance can thus have (indicated) effects without officially having a therapeutic indication proven. 

The use of Licorice has been medically recognized in the following cases:

  • Gastritis (Inflammation of the stomach lining)
  • Stomach and Duodenal Ulcers
  • Cough and Bronchial Catarrh

A smaller study, which is insufficient for a therapeutic indication, points to an anti-inflammatory effect in cases of eczema. In naturopathy, preparations with Licorice root are also used against heartburn. Furthermore, there is a slight suspicion that Licorice root could help with menopausal symptoms.

Please be mindful of the limits of self-medication and only use Licorice root in consultation with medical professionals or therapists. Especially if you are taking medications, the use of Licorice root could lead to interactions.

The Industrial Use of Licorice Roots

Licorice root is used not only for its medicinal properties but also in the industry. In various industries, licorice roots are often used to enhance flavor. The contained glycyrrhizin has 50 times the sweetness of household sugar. It's added to certain foods to make them taste sweeter. Teas are frequently sweetened with licorice root instead of sugar. 

Numerous tobacco manufacturers add licorice root to their tobacco to make the smoke smoother and sweeter. Components of licorice root are also used as additives in animal feed.

Lastly, the cosmetics industry also benefits from the advantages of licorice root: Due to its anti-inflammatory and potentially skin-lightening properties, licorice root can be found in some creams and lotions. 

The Fascinating History of Licorice Roots: From Ayurveda to Babylon

Few medicinal plants have a history as rich and extensive as licorice. The use of licorice root can be traced back to the oldest work in Traditional Chinese Medicine: the Shennong Ben Cao Jing. Today, licorice is among the top 10 essential natural remedies in China.

Other traditional medical traditions like Indian Ayurveda, traditional Japanese, and Persian medicine have recognized the healing properties of licorice root for centuries.

Even in the European context, licorice root has been used for relief for a long time. Babylonian and Ancient Egyptian sources mention licorice root as a medicinal plant. While licorice took longer to spread in Central and especially Northern Europe, figures like Hildegard of Bingen referred to certain effects of licorice root. Today, licorice is widely popular as a sweet treat in Northern Europe, where it arrived relatively late.

Appearance of Licorice

This perennial, winter-hardy plant can grow up to two meters tall. Its stems grow anew each year. The flowers range from light violet to white. The licorice root develops as a long taproot that branches out and becomes woody over time.

Caution: Do Not Consume Excessive Licorice Root!

While licorice root has been used as a medicinal plant for a long time, it should not be consumed excessively. The high content of glycyrrhizin can raise blood pressure and disrupt blood sugar levels when taken in excess. It also seems to have an impact on potassium levels.

Individuals with kidney problems, diabetes, elevated blood pressure, and pregnant women should therefore avoid consuming licorice root or consult their doctor before doing so.

Planting Licorice in Your Own Garden

Licorice is quite easy to care for once you've chosen the right spot. You should plant licorice in the spring. Do not plant them too close, with a spacing of about 50 cm between each plant. The ideal soil is deep, rich in humus, and well-draining, in full sun. Cottage gardens and herb gardens are excellent choices. The plant only needs to be kept slightly moist and can be harvested from the fourth or third year onwards. 

If you want to make a tincture with licorice root yourself, place 50 g of crushed roots in a sealable glass container. Add about 200 milliliters of a spirit with at least 40% alcohol. Place the glass in a warm location for three weeks and shake it regularly.

Interesting Facts about Licorice

As with many plants, the dosage matters with licorice as well. In excessive amounts, the compounds can affect the body's hormones. It is generally advised to avoid consumption in cases of diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.

By the way: The saying "to rasp licorice" comes from the practice of grating licorice into the tea of an ill person, often used as a kind gesture, especially for making medicinal teas to soothe coughs or the like. 

And finally: Did you know that Napoleon is said to have carried a pouch of licorice root powder with him at all times? It's believed he used it to treat his gastritis, showing that even the French ruler was aware of the medicinal properties of these roots.

Licorice: Frequently Asked Questions

Are there allergies or intolerances to licorice?

There is no inherent allergy to licorice. However, if you have conditions like histamine intolerance, you should avoid consuming licorice, as it contains histamine. 

Why is licorice included in many teas?

Numerous teas include licorice to provide natural sweetness without sugar. Certain compounds are up to 50 times sweeter than sugar and are therefore well-suited for use in tea.

What is licorice?

Licorice is the plant behind the sweet treat known as licorice. It belongs to the subfamily of the legume family, Fabaceae. For centuries or even millennia, it has been used to make various teas for different purposes. Licorice candy is also made from the roots of the licorice plant.  

Where does licorice grow?

True licorice is very widespread. It can be found throughout the Mediterranean region, as well as in areas like China and even Russia. The versatility of licorice is evident in its ability to thrive in both dry and swampy areas. So go ahead and consider growing licorice in your own garden. Tips and tricks can be found above.