Put Down the Black Licorice Candy If You're Pregnant

Your candy habit might be harming your baby, according to one study that found black licorice not safe to eat during pregnancy.

If your pregnancy cravings commonly include chewy candy, you'll want to read this: A Finnish study confirms that pregnant people should avoid consuming large amounts of black licorice. The reason? The study links excess fetal exposure to a licorice component to children's cognitive issues.

If you only like the red kind—like Twizzlers and Red Vines—you're A-OK! This study focused specifically on black licorice. The amount of licorice that is safe for pregnant people to consume hasn't been identified at this point—in light of that, it might be a good idea to avoid the stuff altogether.

What The Study Says

Researchers from the University of Helsinki compared 378 children of birthing parents who had consumed large amounts of licorice during pregnancy to come to this finding. But what does "large amount" mean? According to UK's National Health Service (NHS), adults over 40 can safely consume around 100 mg of licorice daily, which is about 2 ounces of black licorice. But more than that could be harmful in as little as two weeks.

Glycyrrhizic acid is a powerful sweetener

Curiously, black licorice has developed a reputation for being dangerous after several rare, albeit high-profile medical cases in which people ate large amounts of black licorice and died shortly after. In one famous case that now prompts annual cautions not to eat too much black licorice during Halloween, a 54-year-old construction worker from Massachusetts died after eating a bag of black licorice a day for several weeks. The problem? The active ingredient in black licorice, called glycyrrhizic acid, can lead to serious health problems and even death.

Glycyrrhizic acid is naturally found in licorice root and is a powerful sweeter, 30 to 50 times sweeter than sucrose, making it a desirable food additive for candy makers. It is safe to consume in small amounts, and you can find it in everything from supplements and teas to jelly beans and candy and even craft beers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows up to 3.1% of a food product to contain glycyrrhizic. If consumed in moderation and according to serving sizes listed on packages, black licorice shouldn't pose a health problem to anyone.

The problem is that glycyrrhizic acid has a long half-life, which means it takes a long time for it to break down and leave the body. If someone eats black licorice daily, that acid sticks around, allowing it to build up quickly. That build-up of acid can lead to a condition called pseudoaldosteronism, which causes a drop in potassium levels, an increase in blood pressure, and other problems.

A few potential health problems that could develop from pseudoaldosteronism include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Increasing blood pressure
  • Heart attack

The Finnish study shows that black licorice can cause serious health problems in children who were exposed to glycyrrhizic acid while in the fetus.

How Black Licorice Affects Kids Who Were Exposed in the Womb

According to the study, exposure to a lot of licorice in the womb correlated with lower cognitive test scores and impaired performance on tests measuring memory capacity. The study defined "a lot" to be more than 500 mg a week, while low levels were considered to be less than 249 mg per week.

The pregnant participants reported to researchers the brand of black licorice they ate and how much per week. Once their babies were born, researchers waited approximately 12 years to track their growth and health to see any differences between kids exposed to low versus high levels of black licorice.

Decline in IQ

Astonishingly, kids who were exposed to high levels of black licorice in the womb showed more ADHD-like issues than their peers and scored significantly lower than kids exposed to low levels of black licorice on IQ scales including verbal, word generation, memory, and more.

Higher rates of ADHD

Children who were exposed to higher levels of black licorice also experienced higher rates of ADHD as well as other mental health issues including anxiety, oppositional defiance, and conduct problems.

Early puberty in females

One surprising outcome shown in the study is that females matured faster than those exposed to lower levels of black licorice. Female children were documented as having statistically higher weight, height, and BMI scores than expected. They also began to mature faster by having menstruation sooner and growing body hair, developing breasts faster than females who were not exposed to high levels of black licorice.

The study noted that males did not mature faster or slower than their peers.

Pregnant People May Need to Be Warned About Black Licorice Safety

These findings, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, suggest that pregnant people should be warned about the possible harmful effects of licorice during doctor's visits. According to the study's release, pregnant people in Finland are reportedly already made aware of this—the country's National Institute for Health and Welfare lists licorice as "not recommended" to consume during pregnancy in their published guidelines.

"It is important to understand that a phenomenon discovered among a group of 378 youths does not necessarily explain the characteristics detected in the development of a single individual," Eero Kajantie, research manager at the National Institute for Health and Welfare, said in a release for the study.

The Bottom Line

If you're pregnant and have been enjoying licorice candy, don't panic. For one thing, the study refers to large consumption—and while there's no way to pinpoint a safe amount, we'd wager that you probably haven't done any damage by enjoying the occasional candy fix.

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