A brief history of liquorice

Eric Bryan 12 May 2022

Did you know that liquorice has ancient roots? Eric Bryan takes us on a journey to explore liquorice through the ages and the health benefits it offers

Most of us have chewed on a piece of confectionary black liquorice at some time in our lives, though you probably never regarded liquorice as a medicinal herb. But through the ages, liquorice has been esteemed as much as a medicine as for its flavour.

Piling liquorice root at Aleppo, Syria circa 1900-20

Piling liquorice root at Aleppo, Syria circa 1900-20 (American Colony, Jerusalem) 

The liquorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a blue-flowering pea with violet blossoms and spiky leaves. It grows all over southern Europe and Asia including in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, China and Russia. The black liquorice with which we’re familiar comes from the plant’s root. Liquorice is known to the Greeks as glykys (“sweet”) rhiza (“root”). 

Liquorice was revered thousands of years ago in China for its strength and vitality-giving properties. The Ancient Egyptians believed it endowed the recently deceased with the ability to keep evil spirits at bay. When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened, pieces of liquorice were found in funeral jars among the kingly treasures. 

"Liquorice essence was sold by monks as a cure for a litany of ailments"

Greek and Roman legionnaires chewed liquorice root to slake their thirst while on long marches or during battles and, like Napoleon after them, they found it relieved stomach ache. That same French general and emperor kept it near for an additional purpose: it calmed his nerves while on the battlefield. 

In the Middle Ages, liquorice essence was sold by monks as a cure for a litany of ailments including chest infections, coughs and stomach upset. The Sioux Indians chewed liquorice root to relieve toothache and made an ear drop solution from it for earaches. 

How is liquorice made today?

Modern liquorice sweet in a jar next to a red and white cloth

The modern liquorice we know as a sweet was created in 1760 by Yorkshire apothecary George Dunhill. He started using sugar and flour to stretch the pricey medicinal liquorice essence he sold, and confectionary liquorice was born. Dunhill’s customers clamoured for more, and it wasn’t long before several factories in England were manufacturing it. So treasured and in demand was the new product that the English tried to keep the recipe a national secret. 

The uses for liquorice seem endless. Millions of kilos of it are imported to America every year, most of it from the Mediterranean area. Much of it is used to flavour smoking products, especially cigars and pipe tobacco. Liquorice is even added to some beers to ensure a buoyant, foamy head. 

"So treasured and in demand was the new product that the English tried to keep the recipe a national secret"

Liquorice has been used to treat peptic ulcers and as a cough expectorant additive, and in Jamaica it’s brewed into a tea which has laxative properties. The Kama Sutra recommends liquorice in a milk and sugar concoction as an aphrodisiac, and in Germany liquorice at one time superseded chocolate as an intimate gift. 

Unexpected health benefits

Glycyrrhiza glabra fruits and seeds

Glycyrrhiza glabra fruits and seeds (Roger Culos) 

The general health benefits associated with liquorice are numerous: it’s said to be helpful to those suffering from gastritis, nausea, colds, bronchitis, hypoglycaemia and inflammation, as well as for the promotion of adrenal gland function, cleansing the colon, easing spasms, and to help clear the lungs and bronchial tubes of excess mucous. 

The US National Cancer Institute’s Experimental Food Programme has explored liquorice as a possible cancer fighter, liver protector, allergy manager, infection fighter (particularly for burn patients), and diabetic complications controller. 

"Look for a product with no artificial additives or preservatives"

You may be ready to rush out to your local shop in an attempt to treat an ailment or two with a fistful of black liquorice whips, but before you go: So-called black liquorice found on corner shop counters and shelves may not contain any liquorice at all. Other similar tasting herbs and substances are often used to flavour sweets sold as liquorice, usually aniseed oil (derived from anise, another flowering herb with a liquorice-like taste). 

Read the printed ingredients of a product claiming to be liquorice before buying if you want to experiment with the herb’s health benefits. It must include liquorice extract to be genuine. Look for a product with no artificial additives or preservatives. 

Moderation is key

Wild liquorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), flower stalk and leaf stem. At 8,400 ft (2,600 m) along McGee Creek Trail at edge of John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, California (Dcrjsr, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

Wild liquorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), flower stalk and leaf stem. At 8,400 ft (2,600 m) along McGee Creek Trail at edge of John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, California (Dcrjsr) 

If you opt for the liquorice approach, as always when it comes to your health, a measure of caution is in order. It’s possible to misuse this herb, and those who have overindulged in liquorice sweets or liquorice-laced snuff have ended up hospitalised with symptoms including shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Excess liquorice consumption can also cause hypertension. These maladies stem from liquorice’s mild toxicity, which is usually not harmful when the herb is consumed in reasonable amounts and not on a long-term basis. Deglycyrrhizinated liquorice (DGL) is a supplement which causes fewer side effects and is the recommended form of liquorice to consume for the treatment of ailments such as ulcers. 

So being mindful of moderation, maybe you’ll put the theories of the ancient Chinese and Egyptians to the test. And the next time you savour a piece of liquorice your mind can wander the ages, and consider the history of this, the herb of emperors. 

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