After a long evening of ringing doorbells and parading in costume, some trick-or-treaters may find this sweet treat in their bags.
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.
A curious combination of industries makes use of this licorice paste. MAFCO Worldwide, Camden, N.J., which claims to be the world’s leading licorice manufacturer, sells about 80% of its product to the tobacco industry, says Guy Dietrich, MAFCO’s director of industrial relations and regulatory affairs. The industry uses it for flavoring cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Beverage makers use licorice as a foaming agent. Pharmaceutical companies use the sweetness of licorice to mask the taste of bitter drugs.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to read more about licorice.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society