Pregnant women might want to consider adding licorice to their list of forbidden foods, a recent study suggests. Researchers concluded that children of mothers who had consumed “large amounts” of licorice (250 grams, or nearly 9 ounces a week) during their pregnancies scored lower on cognitive tests of reasoning and memory and also showed more signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Considered altogether, the cognitive problems among the 378 children studied were equivalent to a 7-point drop in IQ, the authors wrote in their paper published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
This study is just the latest noting the harmful effects of glycyrrhizin, a part of the licorice plant that’s 50 times sweeter than sugar and has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ulcers and food poisoning. The natural chemical is also used to make throat lozenges, root beer and is used to color some stout beers. Studies have also linked glycyrrhizin with blood pressure spikes and shorter pregnancies, and the US Food & Drug Administration warned that consuming black licorice could cause potassium levels in the body to drop, which could result in “abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.”
The good news: American women should note that the licorice sold in this country likely contains negligible amounts of glycyrrhizin. Many licorice-type products sold in the United States contain anise oil, which has a similar aroma and test but doesn’t pose the health risks of glycrrhizic acid. For instance, one popular licorice product, Twizzlers -- which consist mostly of corn syrup, wheat flour and sugar -- don’t contain any glycrrhizic (or even anise oil). Although black licorice generally is more likely to contain the chemical, experts say it’s found in very small amounts in products sold in the United States.
So what do health experts have to say? “With studies like this, we need to be mindful that people in different countries often eat very different types of food,” says Kelly Kasper, MD, gynecologist at Indiana University Health. “So considering these results in terms of the American diet might be apples to oranges.” Of course, she says, expectant moms always want to err on the side of caution when it comes to the health of their unborn babies.
The researchers in this and other studies of glycyrrhizic have concluded that the chemical appears to affect the regulation of cortisol, the stress hormone that is necessary for fetal development but can be harmful to unborn babies when too much is produced.
And it’s of course easy to buy black licorice from other countries online, such as Finland and Australia, which are more likely to be flavored with licorice extract than with anise oil. So, concerned moms-to-be with a taste for black licorice might want to talk to their OB-GYNs about how much of it is safe to eat during pregnancy.
That said, Dr. Kasper says she doesn’t think there’s much cause for alarm if Twizzlers are your go-to movie candy and not an everyday treat.
“It’s hard to draw the conclusion that it was licorice consumption during pregnancy that led to these kids having issues when they were so much older,” Dr. Kasper says, noting that researchers evaluated kids who were 13 years old on average, so many other factors could have contributed to the results.
The researchers’ conclusions were also gleaned from self-reported data from the moms, which tends to be less reliable, she says. “It could be more a reflection of how the mothers ate, or how the kids ate as they developed?” Dr. Kasper says. “And that’s a difficult conclusion to draw without more research.”
-- By Virginia Pelley