What is Black Licorice Candy?

People love the sweet taste of licorice—or utterly despise it. It is almost as personal as politics. Whatever your taste, at the root of licorice is a continuously growing global gastronomical and medicinal history reaching back to the Sumerians, more than 4,000 years ago. From common coughs to beer, licorice’s powerful presence persists despite personal tastes.

Where does black licorice candy come from? The licorice root.

Black licorice comes from the licorice plant’s root. Licorice, botanically known as Glycyrrhiza glabra, means “sweet root” in Greek. The Glycyrrhizin acid extracted from the licorice root is 30 to 50 times sweeter than table sugar. Sweeter still, the health benefits of black licorice have passed from folk knowledge to scientific fact. An ancient Egyptian cure-all, black licorice is proven high in anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

A history of black licorice: from global medicine to sweet treat

The oldest recorded use of licorice root was found on a Sumer tablet in Mesopotamia (2000 BC). While licorice candy is relatively new, licorice root has been used medicinally since ancient times. The Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Babylonians, and Chinese used licorice root as an herbal remedy for coughs, sore throats, and indigestion. It was mixed with honey to treat wounds. The Egyptians also used licorice in a popular men’s drink called mai sus.

Black licorice candyLicorice grew for at least 500 years in Europe before the first black licorice candies were crafted. The history is unclear. The Romans may have introduced it. We know English monastic orders (largely from Spain and Italy) grew it as a medicinal plant. However it rooted, by the 14th century Europeans were brewing licorice beer for medical tonics and recreational enjoyment. Licorice added a distinctively aromatic characteristic and foamy head. In the Late Middle Ages, it was being molded into pastilles. By the 16th century, licorice was used as a sweetener in Elizabethan England.

In the 18th century George Dunhill, a seven-year-old from Pontefract, added sugar to medical licorice to make the first licorice candy. Soon after, sweets called Pontefract cakes become popular in England. The Dutch created a new process of extracting Glycyrrhizin acid from the licorice root and created a new method to quickly manufacture licorice candy. Dutch merchants spread the new candy throughout their trade routes, eventually to the Americas.

Famous golden boys of history who loved licorice

Napolean loved licoriceMilitary leaders extraordinaire Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut) all enjoyed black licorice:

Alexander the Great’s troops marched with ample licorice root rations to quench thirst.

Julius Caesar endorsed the health benefits of black licorice.

Napoleon advanced licorice as soothing during battle. Allegedly, he ate so much black licorice, it turned his teeth black. (Luckily, today’s food dye won’t besmirch your shiny whites.)

King Tut’s tomb housed large amounts of licorice root. (Ample mai sus in the afterlife!)

Modern health benefits of black licorice

Licorice continues to be a widely used herbal remedy. Black licorice: 

  • Relieves coughs, congestion, sore throats
  • Raises blood pressure and alleviates heartburn
  • Serves as a mild laxative
  • Eases nausea, vomiting, and stomach ulcers
  • Treats eczema when added to topical gels
  • Sweetener for medicines such as NyQuil

Fun facts about licorice

  • The licorice plant is officially a weed
  • National Licorice Day April 12th
  • Anise seed is often substituted to flavor black licorice, especially in the United States (Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory makes authentic black licorice from licorice root.)
  • Red licorice does not contain any licorice root (or anise seed)
  • Licorice is sometimes called “sweet wood” or “Spanish juice”
  • Charlie Chaplin’s famous shoe-eating scene was actually a licorice prop in The Gold Rush

Are there risks to eating too much black licorice?

According to the FDA, eating more than 2 oz. of black licorice daily for 14 days or longer can cause potassium levels to drop dangerously low. Moderate your love of licorice. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not eat any licorice.

If you have a medical condition, consult your doctor about diet. Some circulatory, blood and pulmonary conditions can be impacted by licorice root. It may be contraindicative to your medication or treatment.Black licorice candy from Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory