Black licorice is like broccoli. You either love or hate it. As a kid, you may have tossed the candy in the trash at Halloween. But as an adult, you may have heard that its bittersweet flavoring may be good for you. Those who acquire an adult taste for the candy -- from twists, ropes, gumdrops and jellybeans to tiny, colorful, candy-coated capsules containing the chewy treat -- may wonder about the ingredients of black licorice.
Licorice Plant Root
True licorice flavoring comes from the super-sweet root of the licorice plant, also known as Glycyrrhiza glabra, which contains a salt called glycyrrhizin in glycyrrhizinic acid. The salt and acid work together to make the flavoring, which may be 50 to 150 times as sweet as table sugar but has no calories. Among licorice candies, only black licorice contains this flavoring. Licorice root is also used in supplements, including health-related teas, because its glycyrrhizin helps soothe problems such as sore throats and stomach ulcers. However, if candies or other products containing licorice root -- such as teas -- are overconsumed, their glycyrrhizin can lead to bloating and high blood pressure caused by potassium and sodium imbalances. If you are pregnant, you should avoid glycyrrihizin, because it may cause uterine contractions.
Anise Seed Oil
Licorice flavoring also is derived from the oil of anise seeds. Anise is often used as a replacement flavor in licorice candy, partly due to health concerns about overconsumption of the licorice plant's powerful, medicinal component called glycyrrhizin. Anise seed oil is mostly beneficial. Aside from flavoring candies and cookies, one of its benefits is that anise teas can act as a expectorant and help clear chest congestion.
A 45-gram serving of black licorice twists, which equals four sticks, contains 150 calories, most of which come from refined starches and sugars. The main ingredient of one common American brand is enriched wheat flour followed by sugar, cornstarch, licorice root extract, palm oil, salt and other flavorings. It also contains glycerin, which should not be confused with glycyrrhizin. Glycerin is a by-product of soap-making that is a non-caloric sweetener and moisture enhancer. So glycerin helps make the candy tasty and soft. It is also used in cosmetics to make your skin soft, but you probably don't want to think about cosmetics ingredients even if they are safe for you. Finally, black licorice contains small quantities of food colorings, mineral oil and soy lecithin.
Other Licorice Root Products
Despite being best known for its role in flavoring black licorice candy, licorice root is primarily used in paste form by the tobacco industry where it flavors cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. In 2002, the world's leading manufacturer of licorice paste sold 80 percent of its product to the tobacco industry. In powder and liquid forms, licorice root extract is also added to alternative medicine supplements and teas. However, according to the Nutrition Diva website, you shouldn't drink teas containing licorice root every day. Although glycyrrhizin has its benefits, including the potential for preventing acid reflux, its potential side effects of harming blood pressure should inspire caution in even the healthiest of consumers.
Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.