Who loves a bit of liquorice? As a kid, did you chew on a stick and then rush to the mirror with your mates, to see your tongue and gums turn a sticky shade of black?
Liquorice, in all its sorts, is a staple of many a candy goody bag and no pick n mix collection would be complete without a gooey stick of black – or Spanish as it’s traditionally referred to either side of the Pennines.
So what is liquorice, where does it come from, and what is it used for – besides vying for our attention at supermarket checkout tills and cinema ticket queues.
The liquorice plant
First the science bit that you probably don’t know. Liquorice is a confection usually flavoured with the extract of the roots of the liquorice plant Glycyrrhiza glabra. The liquorice plant is a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, such as India. Extract of the roots of the liquorice plant, are sugar, binding agent (starch, flour, gum arabic, or gelatin).
Liquorice sweets ingredients
The essential ingredients of liquorice confectionery are liquorice extract, sugar, and a binder. The base usually consists of starch/flour, gum arabic, gelatin. Other ingredients are extra flavouring, beeswax for a shiny surface, ammonium chloride and molasses. Ammonium chloride is mainly used in salty liquorice candy, which can contain up to about 8 percent salt.
However, even regular liquorice candy can contain up to 2 percent ammonium chloride, the taste of which is less prominent due to the higher sugar concentration. Some liquorice candy is flavoured with anise oil instead of or in combination with liquorice root extract.
Did you know that the liquorice-root extract contains the natural sweetener glycyrrhizin, which is over 50 times sweeter than sucrose? During manufacturing, the ingredients are dissolved in water and heated to 135 °C (275 °F). In order to make different shaped sweets, the liquid is poured into moulds that are created by impressing holes into a container filled with starch powder. The liquid is then dried and the resulting sweets are sprayed with beeswax to make their surface shiny.
The different types of liquorice sweets
Now for the bits that you may be more familiar with. A wide variety of liquorice sweets are produced around the world.
In North America, black licorice, as it’s spelt in the States, is distinguished from similar confectionery varieties that are not flavoured with liquorice extract but commonly manufactured in the form of chewy ropes or tubes, or sticks. So called “black licorice” is also a widespread flavour in other forms of confectionery such as jellybeans. In addition to these, various other liquorice-based sweets are sold in the United Kingdom, such as liquorice allsorts.
Dutch and Nordic liquorice characteristically contains ammonium chloride (salt) instead of sodium chloride, prominently so in salty liquorice. In many countries in Europe (including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries) strong tasting salted liquorice is very popular.
But did you know that one of the first places in Britain where liquorice mixed with sugar began to be used as a sweet was Pontefract in Yorkshire (where many liquorice sweets are still make today)? It’s from here that we get the black circular liquorice sweets called Pontefract Cakes.
Health benefits of liquorice
Now, put away the idea of Liquorice just as a sweet for second if you can.
What is liquorice used for? And does it have any health benefits? Liquorice is a traditional herbal remedy with an ancient history and worldwide usage. Liquorice has a long and highly varied record of uses. It was and remains one of the most important herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Among its most consistent and important uses are as a demulcent (soothing, coating agent) in the digestive and urinary tracts, to help with coughs, to soothe sore throats, and as a flavouring. It has also been used to treat conditions ranging from diabetes to tuberculosis.
When rationing was in force during the Second World War, liquorice was used as a toothpaste and as a breath freshener. On a similar war time theme, Alexander the Great used liquorice in the rations for his troops as a thirst quencher for long marches. And of course, Liquorice has been used extensively in the soft drink and confectionary making industry.
What is liquorice used for? Well, in Spain and Italy, where it grows naturally, many people collect the root and chew on it in its natural form.
When it’s best to avoid liquorice?
So we know about the various health benefits of liquorice. But when should liquorice consumption be avoided? During pregnancy and in cirrhosis of the liver. It may interfere with the calcium and potassium absorption. And don’t eat liquorice if you are suffering from osteoporosis or hypertension.
So that’s the health warning out of the way.
Whether it’s wheels, wands, rocks or coconut rolls, torpedoes or mints, now you can get back to enjoying any sort of liquorice in any shape and at any time.