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What is Licorice Root?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Licorice root is the root of the licorice plant, a member of the pea family which has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. In addition to being used as a culinary flavoring, it also plays a role in some traditional medical practices, especially Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where it is known as gan zao. The medical value of licorice root is a subject of debate; most scientific testing suggests that it may not provide that many benefits, although it does not appear to be harmful.

Several forms of licorice root are commercially available. Many natural foods stores stock the whole dried roots, which can be ground at home or used to make herbal tisanes. It can also be found in powder and capsule form, for people taking it as a nutritional supplement, and it is often found in herbal tea blends. Culinary licorice extract is also available, for people who want to use it as a flavoring.

The flavor of licorice root is sweet, with a lingering finish and a faint hint of anise. Anise is in fact used as a substitute for this root in many sweets, since it is stronger, with a more asserting flavor. The sweetness of is caused by glycyrrhizic acid, a naturally sweet compound which releases slowly into the system, unlike sucrose, which has a more immediate effect.

In medicine, licorice has been used by many people including the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Glycyrrhiza glabra, or European licorice, is one of the most common species, with the Chinese using G. uralensis, while Americans harvest G. lepidota. Fans of licorice root believe that it helps with intestinal complaints such as ulcers, and it may also be consumed to treat sore throats, bronchitis, and other respiratory issues. Some people also believe that licorice root may be helpful for viral infections such as Hepatitis C, although this usage may not be effective, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

As a flavoring, licorice root is a distinctive and interesting addition to sweets. People who intend to take it as a dietary supplement should consult their physicians, however, as it may conflict with some medications. This is the case with all herbal supplements and natural medical treatments; a doctor will be able to provide better care if she or he has a full picture. You should also always see a doctor if the symptoms you are treating do not improve.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By kdutch — On May 07, 2014

I was raised on salmiak and dubbel zout - the Dutch versions and I believe, the Finnish. I used to be able to get it readily in the US, but find it more scarce now.

I prefer the powders, and more salty, not the sweet or chocolate covered. Does anyone have a really good source where to order it or obtain it in the US? Some of the websites do not ship to the US, or are more expensive to ship than to purchase. Salted licorice is amazing. The only side effects after having it over 40 years, can be if you indulge too much, you get runny stools or dehydrated - and it is not good for high blood pressure. But it's really yummy -- in moderation!

By anon275612 — On Jun 19, 2012

I love licorice. Candy or teas are irresistible. However, I am advised by an herbalist that it is bad for high blood pressure. I even purchased a box of organic tea with licorice in it and it has a warning on it for people with high blood pressure.

Unfortunately, it seems many are unaware of this, including tea companies. I now have had high blood pressure for about three years and I had excellent heart health and blood pressure my whole life. (I'm 39). And it is not in our family history to have high blood pressure.

I don't want to overlook that life stresses could have pushed my blood pressure up, but the fact is, life in modern America is stressful and one might want to consider this. Hope this is helpful to someone.

By julies — On Mar 03, 2012

Has anybody used licorice herbal supplements to help balance hormones?

I recently read an article about the Chinese using licorice root for many things, and balancing hormones was one of them.

If this is effective for something like this, I wonder if it is used in any natural products for women who are going through menopause?

I have been doing some research on this as I don't want to rely on unnatural products when I reach this stage of my life.

I am always interested in all the medicinal properties something like licorice root has. I seems like one herb can be a remedy for many different problems.

I might start out by drinking a little bit of licorice tea. This would be a simple way to start adding something like this to my diet on a regular basis.

By Mykol — On Mar 02, 2012

@SarahSon - I would check with your doctor before taking any licorice for medicinal purposes. My doctor always wants to know what kind of vitamins and herbal supplements I am taking along with any prescription medications.

Some herbal supplements can interact with prescriptions medications and it is better to know this ahead of time.

It could be very helpful for you, but it would be better to get your doctor's advice before starting something like this.

My doctor is usually pretty open to trying natural supplements like this. If I can find a natural way to deal with something, I would much rather do that than continue to take a medication for it.

My mom has taken a licorice root supplement for many years, and no longer has to take any over the counter medications for her heartburn.

By SarahSon — On Mar 02, 2012

I have a lot of digestive problems and chronic gastritis. One of my friends suggested I try a licorice supplement that might be a natural way to get some relief.

It seems like I remember reading that licorice root can interact with other medications. This article also mentioned that it should not be taken on a long term basis.

I would like to find a natural way to deal with my digestive problems, but don't want to start something that might cause more problems.

It sounds like many people have received good benefits from using licorice root, but it also sounds like it isn't for everybody. Has anybody experienced any unpleasant licorice side effects?

By bagley79 — On Mar 01, 2012

I am one of those people who really loves the taste of black licorice. There doesn't seem to be very many choices when it comes to this flavor - either you like it or you can't stand it.

I found a spiced licorice herbal tea that has become one of my favorites. It is naturally sweet with the subtle taste of black licorice.

This tea contains licorice root, cinnamon, anise and orange peel. What makes it even better is that it doesn't have any caffeine. I find myself making a cup of this in the evening and it satisfies my sweet tooth without all the extra calories.

I could easily make myself a cup of this tea every night and not have to worry about it keeping me awake at night.

By lighth0se33 — On Mar 01, 2012

@ddljohn – Licorice root is also great for treating canker sores. I get these incredibly painful ulcers inside my mouth, usually on the skin of my inner cheeks or below my lips. This makes eating difficult, and if I try to eat any citrus fruit while I have the sores, the pain is excruciating.

Last time I had a sore like this, I mixed some licorice root with lukewarm water. Then, I gargled with it several times a day, and the sores went away much more quickly. They normally last for about two weeks, which is a long time to be miserable, but with the licorice root treatment, they went away in a few days.

After reading your comment, I wonder if maybe applying licorice root oil directly to the canker sore might work better. I think I might try that next time instead.

By OeKc05 — On Feb 29, 2012

I use licorice root cough drops whenever I have a sore throat. I have heard that it works as an anti-inflammatory, and I believe this to be true, because those cough drops can soothe even a very scratchy throat.

My husband uses licorice root for his heartburn. Regular antacids don't work very well for him, so his doctor recommended this. The licorice root is supposed to help him digest his food, so he doesn't have all that reflux.

It's pretty neat how the benefits of licorice root vary so widely. I keep it around for whatever ails us.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 29, 2012

Did you know that cigarette companies flavor their cigarettes with licorice root? I've never smoked one, but my husband used to smoke, and I recall smelling a strong sweetness emanating from the rolled up tobacco.

He used to roll his own cigarettes with a hand-cranked machine, so he bought the loose tobacco in a bag. It smelled very much like licorice, and when we checked the label, we saw that it really did contain it.

He tells me that it doesn't actually taste like licorice candy, but that may be because of the other flavorings that could cancel it out. I have seen vanilla used, and it seems to counteract the licorice taste.

By cloudel — On Feb 28, 2012

I don't usually like the flavor of licorice, but there is one thing that contains licorice root that I do love. This is root beer.

There is just a faint hint of licorice in this drink. Since it is toned down by sugar and other types of flavorings that I love, it is not overwhelming.

I was actually surprised when a friend told me that root beer has licorice root in it. Had it not been pointed out to me, I probably never would have noticed.

While I would never eat straight licorice candy, I like the subtle taste that the root gives my favorite beverage. I've heard that some companies use anise instead, but I prefer the kind with licorice root, since it isn't quite as strong.

By ysmina — On Feb 28, 2012

@anamur-- Some dark beers have a licorice flavor too. If you liked ouzo, you're probably going to love licorice flavored beer.

I have a friend who has a brewery and he makes one of the best dark beers I've had. It's definitely unique because it tastes slightly sweet and leaves a smoky licorice flavor afterward. It's not everyone's cup of tea but I quite enjoy it.

He doesn't use straight licorice root though. He uses brewer's licorice. Brew shops sell this licorice in stick form that's especially formulated for brewing and it's pretty affordable too.

By serenesurface — On Feb 27, 2012

The only time I've had anything with licorice flavor in it was when I went to Greece. The traditional Greek liquor, called ouzo, has a very strong licorice taste. I think it's fermented with licorice or a combination of licorice and aniseed.

I'm not a big fan of licorice use in foods, I could never have licorice deserts or candies. But I think that it's a nice addition to flavored liquors. Ouzo is kind of different because it's very strong and has to be mixed with water first. But I think liquor with licorice root is a good way to clean the palate after a dinner. It's comforting to the stomach too.

By ddljohn — On Feb 27, 2012

I've been using licorice root oil topically when I get a cold sore or a fever blister. I heard about this natural remedy from a homeopathy practitioner who was talking about licorice benefits at a conference I attended.

I've had a problem with cold sores for many years. Whenever I forget to hydrate my lips properly or if I have a slight cold or fever, I get painful cold sores on my lips or around my mouth. And they always last over a week.

It's really uncomfortable and kind of embarrassing too since its on my face and is very noticeable. I tried most of the over-the-counter creams and balms but all of them take over a week to work. Which would probably be the case if I didn't use anything at all.

Then, I tried licorice root oil. The one I bought is diluted with another oil I believe. I just applied a dab on the sore or blister and it disappeared in several days. It works much faster than anything else I've tried.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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