Is Glycyrrhizic Acid Dangerous? Massachusetts Man Dies After Eating Bags of Black Licorice

Massachusetts man was found to have extremely low potassium level after he collapsed at a fast-food restaurant

A Massachusetts construction worker, who really enjoyed black licorice, used to eat a bag and a half every day for a few weeks, but his love for the candy wound up costing him his life. Now, the doctors said on Wednesday, September 23 that he died because of the glycyrrhizic acid in the black licorice candy that unbalanced his nutrients and caused the heart failure.

Dr. Neel Butala, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the case of the 54-year-old man in the New England Journal of Medicine. He said that even the consumption of a small amount of licorice can increase the blood pressure a little bit.

candy licorice Pixabay

Glycyrrhizic Acid and Its Effects

An acid from Glycyrrhiza—a genus of about 20 accepted species in the legume family—has some antiallergic, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. Glycyrrhizic acid is used for allergic or infectious skin inflammation and orally for its aldosterone effects in electrolyte regulation.

It is mainly used as a flavoring and sweetening agent for bitter drugs, candies, and chewing gums. It may also be present in some cough and cold syrups, as well as in many health products and Chinese herbal teas that contain considerable amounts of glycyrrhizic acid. But the acid which contains licorice root extract can cause dangerously low potassium levels and imbalance other minerals in the body, if not regulated.

As per the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumption of as little as 2 ounces of black licorice per day for two weeks could trigger heart problems, specifically for those who are above 40.

Dr. Robert Eckel, a University of Colorado cardiologist and former American Heart Association president said, "It's more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of things over the counter. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, have this compound in it."

The Unfortunate Death

dead body
Man died after eating bags of black licorice Wikimedia Commons

The Massachusetts man had switched from red-fruit-flavored twists to the black licorice candy just a few weeks before his death. The man was having his lunch at a fast-food restaurant when suddenly he collapsed. After diagnosis doctors found that his potassium levels had dropped dangerously and this led him to heart-related problems, including unusual heart rhythms. After his collapse emergency responders did CPR and he revived for a while but the next day he passed away.

There are many candies and other products which don't reveal exactly how much glycyrrhizic acid is contained per ounce. As per FDA, soft candies are allowed to contain a maximum of 3.1 percent of glycyrrhizic acid, but after the man's death doctors have reported this case to the federal agency to pay attention to the risk.

As reported by AP, Jeff Beckman, a spokesman for the Hershey Company, which makes Twizzlers licorice twists said that all of the products made by the company "are safe to eat." He also claimed that these products are formulated in full compliance with FDA regulations.