Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany identified a group of natural substances within liquorice root called amorfrutins. Testing on mice, the scientists found that the consumption of amorfrutins reduced blood sugar levels and inflammation that would otherwise be present in the mice suffering from Type 2 diabetes. The amorfrutins also prevented the development of a fatty liver – a common side-effect of type 2 diabetes and a high-fat diet.
But before you run off to your nearest Darrell Lea, take note. “The amount of amorfrutin molecules in a piece of licorice available for human consumption is far too low to cause the same beneficial effects that were identified in the diabetic mice.” In response, the researchers developed a method of extracting sufficient concentrations of amorfrutins from the Amorpha fruticosa bush in which they are also found, which could be used to produce amorfrutin extracts on an industrial scale.
So is there any benefit to be had in eating liquorice sweets?
Well, it depends on the sweet. What you’re looking for is products containing liquorice extract or liquorice root. You won’t get the same medicinal properties from anise oil, which is what is used to flavour many commercial liquorice products. Even if the sweet does contain extract, the quantity is usually far too small to have any sort of health benefit. As nutritionist Catherine Saxelby notes, Darrell Lea liquorice contains just 3 per cent liquorice extract, coming in after flour, sugar, molasses, and glucose syrup on the ingredient list.
Manufacturers of liquorice sweets are quick to point out that liquorice is a low-fat food. Saxelby says that while liquorice is a healthier snack than milk chocolate, moderation is still the word of the day. “There’s nothing wrong with having a few pieces of liquorice three or four times a week, so long as it’s your only “treat food” that week,” says Saxelby. “It’s not safe for coeliacs though; the main ingredient of liquorice is wheat flour.” Those with high blood pressure should also avoid the salty Dutch variety of liquorice, she says. Liquorice is slightly lower in sugar and carbohydrates than most other lollies, and contains small amounts of protein, iron and calcium.
Real liquorice also contains glycyrrhizin, a substance obtained from the root of the liquorice plant. Glycyrrhizin is the active agent in liquorice that combats illnesses such as upper respiratory infections, and is said to lessen the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. But the amount of real liquorice found in liquorice sweets is not standardised, making it far more safe and effective to take the recommended quantity of liquorice root or extract as a pill or powder. Those with high blood pressure may want to consider the deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) form of the product. In spite of its benefits, continued consumption of large amounts of glycyrrhizin may reduce blood potassium levels, lead to water retention, and increase blood pressure.
Last year in Germany, where around 500 tonnes of liquorice are imported each year, liquorice was named “the medicinal plant of 2012”. Professor Johannes Mayer, an expert on the history of medicinal botany at the University of Würzburg, noted the myriad indications of liquorice, used medicinally since ancient times. “Liquorice is special because it can quickly soothe sore throats and coughs and was used centuries ago to treat coughing, hoarseness and asthma by Ancient Greek and Egyptian physicians,” he said.