Licorice, salty licorice and licorice root on a wooden table

Licorice – ancient remedy and beloved (or hated) candy

Few confections are as popular yet divide opinions as strongly as licorice. Licorice is a black candy made from licorice root which has a sweet yet strong flavor. Licorice tickles the taste buds of especially the Nordic people and a more hardcore version of this black treat, salty licorice, is particularly popular in Finland. Licorice is not only known for its candy status but also as a natural remedy, bringing aid to stomach problems and cough.

What is licorice?

Though licorice is particularly popular in the North, the licorice plant grows quite far from the North, in the area between the Mediterranean, Afghanistan and China. Licorice plant is also cultivated in the United States. The scientific name of the licorice plant is Glycyrrhiza glabra, formed from the Greek words ‘glykys’ and ‘rhiza’, meaning sweet root.

There are about 20 different licorice species and their flavor ranges from sweet to peppery. Only a few of these species are sweet enough for preparing licorice extract used in licorice candies – which is the key ingredient of the sweet black treat. Licorice root has other uses besides candy, though. Licorice root has been used as a natural remedy for many conditions throughout the ages.

Licorice roots on a wooden table

Where it all begins: the licorice root.

The roots of the licorice root extend to ancient China, the tomb of King Tut and Roman battlefields

Did you know that when you enjoy licorice you are enjoying the favorite delicacy of the pharaohs and history’s greatest warlords? Licorice has an interesting and long history as a delicacy, stimulant and medicine.

Licorice was already used 5000 years ago in China as a medicinal plant to treat various aches and ailments. The popularity of licorice has remained steady for thousands of years, for it is still today the second most used herb in China after ginseng. Licorice had medicinal use in ancient Mesopotamia. It was also used as a love potion as it helped to get rid of bad breath and supposedly gave an extra boost in the sack.

In ancient Egypt, licorice was used to make a sweet drink called Mai Sus which is still enjoyed in Egypt. Mai Sus was also favored by the famous pharaoh King Tut: when archeologists opened his tomb in 1922, they discovered that he had been buried with licorice root. This was apparently to ensure that when he reached the afterlife, he would immediately get to enjoy a cup of his beloved Mai Sus.

Licorice was also the secret weapon of some of the most well-known rulers in history. Alexander the Great is said to have ordered his soldiers to chew on licorice root to quench their thirst and to keep their spirits up on the battlefield. The Roman emperor Nero and his legionnaires had the same tactic. Napoleon is said to have consumed licorice so much that it eventually turned his teeth black.

The licorice candies similar to what we know today came into being in Pontefract, England in the 17th century. The apothecary of Pontefract George Dunhill was making Pontefract cakes intended for medicinal use when he – perhaps by accident – added sugar and wheat flour to the licorice root extract. This resulted in the delicious black candy we know and love today.

Is licorice healthy?

Licorice has a reputation for being a healthier kind of candy. One reason for this is that licorice contains very little fat which is why it is also popular among weightwatchers. Perhaps the bigger reason is however the medicinal properties of licorice root. Licorice is used to treat upper respiratory problems, digestion problems and ulcers. Licorice can be consumed in many forms, such as candies, liquid extract and herbal teas.

Licorice root contains about 300 plant compounds. The primary active compound of these is glycyrrhizin which is known for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Glycyrrhizin helps to remove mucus from the lungs which is why it is often used in cough syrups. As an anti-inflammatory substance, licorice can also alleviate sore throat.

Licorice tea and licorice root

Licorice tea is said to help with digestion.

Licorice root extract is also used to treat symptoms of indigestion, such as an upset stomach, acid reflux and heartburn. Licorice is also used to treat peptic ulcers caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Licorice also acts as a laxative and helps to relieve constipation. Too much licorice can however irritate the stomach.

Licorice root is also used to treat various skin conditions such as acne and eczema, as it reduces inflammation. Licorice can be found in many products of the Finnish natural cosmetics brand Luv,A, such as their Day Cream with Licorice Extract.

Licorice is quite powerful stuff and glycyrrhizin also has its downsides. Glycyrrhizin can increase blood pressure and decrease potassium levels when consumed in large quantities for longer periods of time. For example, eating 100-200 grams of licorice a couple of times per week can start to cause problems after a few weeks. Therefore it is good to keep the consumption of this black treat moderate.

Licorice candies and sweets from Arctic Pure

Licorice candies are made with licorice extract, sugar and wheat flour. Licorice can also contain additional ingredients such as anise extract, gum arabic, beeswax, ammonium chloride and molasses. A few Finnish confectioners have successfully experimented with spelt and oat flour to replace wheat flour. This has resulted in a more stomach-friendly but just as delicious licorice as the traditional one made with wheat flour.

Colorful licorice candies
Licorice candies can be found in all the colors of the rainbow.

We warmly recommend to try at least these licorices from our selection:

  • Porvoon lakritsi: Porvoon lakritsi is known particularly for their gluten-free licorices which the company has been making for 25 years. Porvoon lakritsi recently launched a delicious innovation: gluten-free filled licorices! The filled licorices are made from 100 % gluten-free Finnish oats and they are available in three flavors: strawberry, banana and chocolate.
  • Fazer oat licorice: Have you already tried the innovative oat licorice from Fazer? As the name suggests, the oat licorice is made from 100 % Finnish oats. The soft oat licorice is just as delicious as regular licorice and has a rich and sweet flavor. Oat licorice is also suitable for vegans!
  • SunSpelt spelt licorice: SunSpelt’s spelt licorice is another innovative licorice from Finland. Spelt licorice is made from whole grain and organic spelt flour which delivers a delicious and satisfying taste of licorice. Spelt licorice is a perfect way to satisfy sweet cravings naturally without sugar crash afterwards. Try spelt licorice also in desserts!

PSST! We dare you to try salty licorice also 😉

Salty licorice is also an essential part of our cultural heritage in Finland. Salty licorice is also popular in other Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Germany, but other than that the rest of the world is pretty much oblivious to this obsession with the intense black candy.

Salty licorice is actually licorice in which ammonium chloride has been added. Ammonium chloride gives the salty licorice its strong and salty flavor. Salty licorice is available as hard or soft candies and as powder and it is added to many foods. We add salty licorice for example to our ice cream, yogurt, chewing gums and even to our alcoholic drinks. Try white-chocolate covered salty licorice for a bit sweeter taste experience, or if you’re feeling brave enough, grab the original Salty Licorice by Porvoon Lakritsi.

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