The liquorice plant, or glycyrrhiza glabra, is native to Europe and parts of Asia and its root has been used extensively as a medicine and a flavouring. Also known as licorice in American English, it’s often sold as dried roots, which look like a bundle of sticks, but it’s also sold in chopped/powdered form for consumption as a tea.
The Benefits of Liquorice Root Tea
You can purchase liquorice root in several forms, including extracts, but these extracts can increase the risk of side effects. If you want to add liquorice root to your diet, it’s best to use small amounts of the actual dried root in the form of liquorice root tea. It may provide the following benefits:
1. It Can Soothe Digestive Distress
Liquorice root has a long history of use in traditional medicines and a lot of that use has revolved around its apparent ability to cure digestive ailments. This has also been backed by a few recent studies, including one 2015 review that noted how its antimicrobial and antiviral effects could help with digestive disorders. (1)
2. It is an Anti-inflammatory
Inflammation is the cause of many chronic conditions, and liquorice root is one of countless natural substances that may help reduce its effects on the body. It’s not alone in this, and we’ve covered countless substances that have the same, and often better, results (from cistus tea to rose hips and more) but it’s worth noting nonetheless. It may also explain why it seems to be so beneficial in treating digestive ailments, as many of these are rooted in chronic inflammation.
3. It has Been Used in Cancer Research
Liquorice root and glycyrrhizinic acid (which is responsible for imparting its sweet taste) are generating some interest in the field of cancer research. It has been used to reduce the risk of liver cancer in patients with hepatitis C, and it has also been studied for its effects on prostate cancer. (2)
It’s still too early to make any conclusions, though, and these claims have not been backed by any recognised health authority.
4. Liquorice Root Tea and Weight Loss
The vast majority of herbal teas have been linked to weight loss at some point or another, but this speaks more for the advertising potential of a “weight-loss product” than the fat-burning power of nature. The people who manufacture and promote these teas understand how popular weight-loss products are, so they cling to every compound and study that even hints at weight loss before blowing them out of proportion.
It is a similar story with liquorice root. Some studies suggest it could be used to boost metabolism, but they are few and far between and none have been extensive enough for these claims to be substantiated. (3)
Liquorice has been labelled a “cure-all” by modern practitioners and some ancient ones as well. The Egyptians were said to be big fans of the root, using it to make a drink they called “Mai sus”, and burying King Tut with copious amounts of the stuff. There is also some evidence to suggest it was used by the Greeks, and it has an extensive history of use in India, as well.
Many believe that it can provide a host of benefits not mentioned above, including the ability to loosen mucous following a viral infection and to act as a natural diuretic. Contrary to what those Egyptians believed, however, it is not a panacea. In fact, consuming large amounts of liquorice can lead to some very nasty side effects, as discussed below.
The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 100mg of glycyrrhizinic acid per day. This is used as a natural sweetener, and these guidelines are mainly in place to ensure it’s not used to excess by confectionary companies, but it’s something that drinkers of liquorice root tea should keep in mind, as well.
Doses higher than this are thought to increase the risk of side effects, which can include everything from lethargy to cardiac arrest. This is why it’s important to stick with natural, dried root as opposed to extracts, as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll consume enough of the former to overdose on this compound.
Large amounts of liquorice root in any form can increase blood pressure, deplete the body of key minerals, and cause muscle weakness. We’ve all heard reports of kids being hospitalised after consuming too many liquorice sweets, and if you’re anything like us, then you may have dismissed these as lies told by your parents to stop you from eating too much sugar. But it’s true—such cases really do exist.
This is something that can be safe in moderation but should not be consumed beyond that. It should also be avoided by anyone with hypertension and heart problems and by pregnant/breastfeeding women.
Liquorice Root versus Sweets
You may get some of the health benefits of liquorice root by consuming liquorice sweets (or candies, to our readers across the pond) but there is a stark difference between the soft black strips you’ll find in your local sweet shop and the hard roots you’ll find in a health shop. The sweets are made with a liquorice extract in addition to a gummy base (this can be anything from a resin like gum arabic, to gelatine, which is derived from animal skin and bones) to which sugar is then added.
On the one hand, you’re consuming a relatively natural form of what is a relatively healthy substance, but on the other hand, you’re also consuming large amounts of sugar and additives. As with gentian root, which is found in soda, and mastic, which is found in alcoholic drinks, it’s a little of the good with a lot of the bad. It’s okay as a treat, but it’s going to do more harm than good if consumed to excess.
The Flavour of Liquorice Root
Liquorice has an aniseed-like flavour, similar to star anise and even fennel, although the glycyrrhiza glabra plant is related to neither of these. This is not mere coincidence, though, as all of these similarly flavoured substances contain a compound known as anethol, which is responsible for the flavour and odour of these substances (it’s also responsible for the flavour of ouzo and for turning the drink opaque when mixed with water).