A Massachusetts construction worker’s love for the black licorice that cost him his life ended. Doctors reported that eating a sachet and a half every day for a few weeks threw his nutrients out of control and caused the 54-year-old man’s heart to stop.
“Even a small amount of licorice can increase blood pressure a little,” said Dr. Neil Potala, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who described the condition in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The problem is the glycyrrhizic acid found in black licorice and in many other foods and supplements that contain licorice root extract. It can cause dangerous drops in potassium and imbalances in other minerals called electrolytes.
The FDA warns that consuming at least 2 ounces of black licorice per day for two weeks may cause a heart rhythm problem, especially for people over the age of 40.
It’s more than just licorice sticks. It can be jelly pills, licorice tea, a lot of over-the-counter stuff. Dr. Robert Eckel, a cardiologist at the University of Colorado and a former president of the American Heart Association, said that even some beers, such as Belgian beer, contain this compound, as do some chewing tobacco. He had no role in caring for the Massachusetts man.
The death was clearly an extreme case. The man had switched from the fruit-flavored red wraps to the black licorice version of the dessert a few weeks before he passed away last year. He collapsed while eating lunch at a fast food restaurant. Doctors found that he was seriously short of potassium, which led to heart rhythm and other problems. Emergency responders performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation and was resuscitated but died the next day.
Potala said the Food and Drug Administration allows up to 3.1% of a food’s content to contain glycyrrhizic acid, but many candies and other licorice products do not disclose how much per ounce is contained. Doctors have reported the case to the Food and Drug Administration in hopes of increasing attention to the risk.
Jeff Beekman, a spokesman for Hershey Company, which makes the popular licorice Twizzlers, said in an email that “all of our products are safe to eat and are FDA-designed”, and that all foods, including candy, “should be enjoyed in moderation.”