If you’ve recently searched the internet for licorice (also spelled liquorice), you might have been surprised by the results. From motherhood blogs to the New York Times, eating licorice while pregnant appears to be unsafe at first glance. Is this true?
Due to the sweet-tasting compound, glycyrrhizic acid, found in licorice, routinely eating or drinking large amounts of licorice-containing foods while pregnant can cause a variety of problems both for mother and child.
For this reason, it is best to stick to licorice-style products made without glycyrrhizin or consume regular licorice sparingly when you’re pregnant.
Given that some licorice products are often used as ‘natural’ remedies for symptoms common in pregnancy, many women also wonder if these uses are safe or if they can still benefit from glycyrrhizic acid-free licorice.
I’ll break down any benefits, the safety concerns, and which types of licorice are safest during pregnancy.
Licorice Root and Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
The main reason for the warnings on the dangers of eating licorice during pregnancy comes from a recent study on the topic. This 2017 study linked high licorice consumption during pregnancy with decreased cognitive function in children and was later picked up by major news hubs.
The study in question compared mothers who had low to no amount of licorice during pregnancy to mothers who ate a large amount of licorice.
Researchers found that children of mothers who ate large amounts of licorice while pregnant were more likely to score lower on IQ tests, be 3-times more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and that the girls had a higher chance of going through puberty earlier (source: American Journal of Epidemiology).
A couple of other studies have also shown that eating large amounts of licorice during pregnancy is linked to higher chances of preterm birth and increased maternal blood pressure (source: Obstetrics and Gynecology, BMC complementary and Alternative Medicine).
The link between licorice and these negative outcomes comes down to glycyrrhizic acid, one of the sweet-tasting compounds in licorice. This acid stops the function of an enzyme important for the metabolism of certain hormones (source: Food and Chemical Toxicology).
These hormones are important for the control of blood pressure and the heart, which is how eating too much licorice can lead to high blood pressure and early delivery.
Importantly, glycyrrhizic acid is not in all licorice products and can be present in varying amounts.
Black vs Red Licorice When Pregnant
Licorice is consumed as candy (both in red and black varieties), tea, supplement/powder, and flavoring extract. The most popular brands of red licorice candies do not contain any actual licorice and are safe to eat when pregnant.
Black licorice, however, is made with actual licorice root or its extract and does contain the potentially harmful compound. For this reason, black licorice should be limited or avoided altogether during pregnancy.
If you’re interested in the safety of licorice tea and extracts, both of these will be discussed in their own sections below.
How Much Licorice Is Safe In Pregnancy?
As I mentioned above, the dose of glycyrrhizic acid is what makes some licorice products potentially unsafe.
Only eating large amounts of licorice with >500 milligrams of glycyrrhizic acid each week is linked to any negative effects. Some scientific and food safety councils around the world have set even lower safety limits, ranging from 100-200 milligrams per day, with lower amounts for those who eat licorice on a regular/daily basis.
The European Scientific Committee on Food goes a step further, stating that 10 milligrams per day is a safe amount of glycyrrhizin. But how can you know the amount of glycyrrhizic acid in your favorite licorice treat?
Red licorice: Typically, red licorice products do not contain any actual licorice. As always, it is the safest choice to read the ingredients label before enjoying, just to double-check.
Black licorice: On average, approximately 150 grams of black licorice candy contains 200 milligrams of glycyrrhizin (source: Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism). This equals a little over half of a 10-ounce bag of the popular Wiley Wallaby brand soft black licorice candy.
Some licorice products are also made with de-glycyrrhizinated licorice, where the glycyrrhizin is removed. These products are likely more safe than their glycyrrhizin-containing counterparts.
Licorice tea: Though the glycyrrhizin content of homemade licorice tea can be variable based on the recipe and preparation you use, store-bought teas do not tend to be high in the compound. On average, a single 8-ounce cup contains only 31.5 milligrams of glycyrrhizin (source: Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism).
If you are a fan of licorice tea, do keep in mind that this number can add up quickly if you drink the tea often. More on licorice tea is below.
Licorice extract: Liquid licorice extracts are more potent than the root itself. Doses of 2-4 milliliters provide on average 200-800 milligrams of glycyrrhizin, way over any amount deemed safe (source: Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism).
Is Licorice Tea Safe When Pregnant?
Licorice tea has been used as an herbal remedy for digestive problems, and many pregnant women feel inclined to try it as a more ‘natural’ alternative for these pregnancy symptoms. While licorice tea might soothe the throat and stomach, there can be unintended consequences if you drink too much.
There are several reports of licorice tea causing high blood pressure. While these cases were seen in non-pregnant adults, it is very possible for the same effects to happen in pregnant women as well.
What’s more, having high blood pressure during pregnancy puts both mom and baby at risk for complications such as pre-eclampsia and preterm delivery (source: CDC).
The dangers of licorice tea are again due to the compound glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhizic acid). If you are a regular drinker of licorice tea, it is best to limit or refrain from the tea until after you have given birth. Otherwise, you can enjoy it only in moderation, particularly if it’s brewed weakly, to minimize the glycyrrhizin content.
Is Licorice Extract Safe During Pregnancy?
Similar to licorice tea, licorice extract is often sold as a ‘natural’ way to get heartburn relief (source: Harvard Health). Out of all of the ways to consume licorice, extracts contain the most glycyrrhizic acid in their relatively small volume, making it easy to accidentally ingest unsafe amounts.
Often, herbal heartburn relief supplements contain deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), posing less of a risk. If you find a helpful supplement that contains licorice, be sure to verify with the manufacturer that it does indeed contain only deglycyrrhizinated licorice.
For these reasons, it’s best to avoid regular licorice extract when you’re pregnant and only look for deglycyrrhizinated extract. As always, only use supplements from reputable and trustworthy brands that have been tested by a third party for purity and quality.
I Accidentally Ate Licorice When Pregnant: What Should I Do?
It is very common for women to have eaten licorice candy, root, or have had some licorice tea before reading that it may be unsafe. If this happens to you, the first step (and perhaps the most challenging) is not to worry.
The potential for negative effects after eating licorice only happens when a large amount of licorice is consumed regularly or even daily.
Though eating a full bag of black licorice candy one time will have included an amount of glycyrrhizin over the recommended limit, remember that this limit is set based on frequent consumption and a one-off is not likely to cause any serious effects.
Staying in tune with your body, how you are feeling, and if you are noticing any symptoms of high blood pressure can also be helpful. If you do find yourself experiencing signs of high blood pressure that are out of the ordinary for your body, contact your medical providers for personalized guidance.
Licorice- in all of its forms- has a lot more than meets the eye. Hopefully, this article has given you some practical guidance when it comes to which kinds of licorice and how much can be safe during pregnancy.