In sanskrit, it is called sweet stalk. The Greeks named it sweet root. And the Chinese, who may have known about it the longest, dubbed it gancao, which means sweet grass. The strong, dark candy, famous to me as the fastest way to colored saliva, was prized by entire civilizations centuries before Christ.
One thing is well established: Licorice–both the plant and the candy made from it–is sweet. Many fans suggest it is 50 times sweeter than table sugar, though some researchers have placed it at more than 150 times sweeter than sucrose.
This intense sweetness can be traced to glycyrrhizic acid, a multipurpose molecule that consists of two sugar moieties attached to a steroidlike triterpenoid. The varied properties of the molecule have led to the surprising mix of products that hold licorice today: medicines, cough syrups, herbal supplements, gum, tobacco, drinks, and, of course, candy.
Glycyrrhizic acid resides naturally in the root of the licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra. A shrubby, woody-rooted plant with feathery leaves and light blue-violet flowers, it grows in the wild in many Middle Eastern, European, and western Asian countries.
The branching roots grow down as far as 3 feet and out laterally up to 20 feet. The root is harvested, dried, and sold to licorice processors. They, in turn, boil and beat the extract out and repackage it as solid dark blocks, semifluid syrups, or powders.
Traditional Chinese medicine extensively calls for licorice as a herbal healing agent. Europeans use it as a soothing agent in cough suppressants and to help heal ulcers. And in early Western medicine, licorice was found to relieve the symptoms of Addison’s disease.
Some licorice also ends up on the candy aisle, though the amount in the U.S. is surprisingly low. U.S. candy makers routinely swap anise for licorice in licorice-flavored candies. Anise is in the seed that often sits by the door at Indian restaurants. It has a mild flavor similar to licorice.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to read more about the chemistry of licorice.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society