Science has some important reasons to avoid eating too much licorice

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Science has some important reasons to avoid eating too much licorice

There are foods that can split families, or even just couples. Love it or hate it foods. Marmite (and the vegetarian alternative, Vegemite) is one. Then there’s Brussels sprouts, blue cheese, chili peppers, coriander (cilantro), tomatoes (especially the cooked variety) … and licorice.

Personally, I’ve always liked licorice, but there are others who feel very differently about it. There are known to be genetic reasons behind a dislike of some foods such as Brussels sprouts orcoriander but no one has established this for licorice.

Licorice has a long history; the root of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabral has been used medicinally for over 4,000 years.

Licorice has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties and has been used, notably in traditional Chinese medicine, for the treatment of gastric ulcers and liver disorders,such as hepatitis B.

Among its less beneficial effects on the body is raised blood pressure, caused by the glycyrrhizic acid it contains, if you eat too much. Through its interaction with the hormone aldosterone, it causes reabsorption of sodium and excretion of potassium, resulting in an increase in sodium levels and a decrease in potassium levels – one symptom of which is muscular weakness. And pregnant women have been advised to avoid it because it pushes up levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. A study just published upon which this advice is based, drew on several hundred children born in Finland in 1998. They found that mothers who ate more licorice (salmiak, liquorices with added ammonium chloride) gave birth to children who were more likely to have lower IQs and to suffer from ADHD.

Sweet smell of success

We more usually think of licorice in confectionery, where an extract of raw licorice is heated up with other ingredients such as flour, treacle, flavorings and colorings to produce a sweet, thickened product. In Britain, it is closely associated with the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, where it was first grown nearly 1,000 years ago after it was brought to Britain from the Middle East. In 1760, an apothecary named Charles Dunhill first produced “Pontefract cakes”, flat, circular sweets. Dark salty licorice is hugely popular in northern European countries such as Holland and Sweden.

Licorice is used as a flavoring in substances as diverse as tea and tobacco, and in drinks like the Egyptian erk sous and the French pastis. The sweetness of licorice is principally due to the glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhizic acid), which is around 40 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).

The aromas of raw licorice and heat-processed licorice are due to a blend of chemicals, recently identified by a research group in Munich, led by Peter Schieberle, a distinguished flavor scientist.

licorice stickShutterstock

The team achieved this by first separating the complex mixtures of chemicals present in the licorice, and then identifying each one by spectroscopic techniques. Aroma experts then examined each compound to find which of the molecules present actually contributed towards it (around 50). Finally, they reconstituted a mixture of these molecules, each present at its “natural” concentration, to see if the mixture had the characteristic licorice smell (it did).

So there is no single molecule which has a licorice smell by itself; what we smell is a blend of odors from all these molecules, which our brain “integrates”. The molecules anethole (also found in aniseed, fennel and star anise) and estragole (also found in tarragon) supply an “aniseed” note, but there are many other important compounds that contribute, including 1,8-cineole eucalyptus, 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, responsible for the “popcorn” note of many cereal products like bread and rice, and a number of aldehydes such as (E,Z)-2,6-nonadienal (found in cucumbers).

The heat-processed licorice extract has many molecules in common with raw licorice, butsome are unique to it like maltol, which contributes a caramel note, and 3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethylfuran-2(5H)-one (sotolone), also with a caramel note at low concentrations and which is responsible for the flavor of raw cane sugar.

Many of the extra molecules are generated in the heating process from reactions, such as those between sugars and amino acids present in the raw licorice root.

So enjoy your licorice – if you do. Just don’t overdo it.

 
Previous Published: https://goo.gl/p3sfnl