Death by Licorice

The year when we moved to Denmark – 2017 – FDA issued a warning just before Halloween: Licorice can kill you.

This, of course, I’ve always instinctively known. I mean, if it tastes like poison, it is poison! The Danes – and Nordic people in general – however, seem to be immune to the dangers of licorice. How else could we explain the longevity of Danes, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders and even the Dutch (I’m lumping in the Dutch here because apparently they too like their licorice).


Black licorice (in Denmark there is only black licorice. And as for red licorice, it may taste like plastic, but according to the FDA, it’s apparently edible) contains the evil sounding compound glycyrrhizin. Not sure if that’s what gives licorice its ominous taste, but according to the FDA eating 2 oz of this stuff every day for two weeks can land anyone over 40 in a hospital for arrhythmia. I get arrhythmia (or the irregular heart rhythm) every time I even get a whiff of the stuff. It’s my body’s way of protecting itself.

Licorice isn’t just dangerous for the more mature population. High consumption of licorice has been linked to premature births, high blood pressure, and dangerous interactions with prescription medications, regardless of age.

Children, of course, are not safe either. Salmiac – or ammonium chloride – is a delicacy for some (fertilizer for others). This addition to licorice makes for an even more deadly combination. Salmiac candy that contains over 2% of the stuff comes with a warning that it should not be fed to children.

So, how are Scandinavians (and Finns and the Dutch), still alive? This is a good question that I’d like to pose and leave it at that, since I don’t know how to answer it. (Built-up tolerance? Evolution? Super-human resistance to poison?)

In Denmark, in addition to the usual licorice candy, you can find some rather unsettling food combinations that incorporate licorice.

There are licorice-salt mixes, ice cream, liquors, beer, cider, chocolates, yogurt, savory marinades (try to imagine licorice flavored chicken), mints, tea and even just pure licorice powder that you can sprinkle on anything that happens to be missing licorice.


It isn’t just the toxicity of licorice that worries me. It’s the uncompromising love of the stuff that’s really unsettling. I have not met a Dane yet who doesn’t like licorice (I ask almost every Dane I come in contact with and every time I get a surprised: Of course! I love it! Why would you even ask…). Is it an acquired taste or is it genetic?


I have to admit though that the reason for this post is more than just me feeling like the Danish cuisine is a minefield (I’ve inadvertently purchased items containing licorice without realizing that they did). I envy anyone who enjoys it. I’m a huge fan of salty and my favorite color is black. So obviously, I wish I liked it. Unfortunately, even when I try to like it, my taste buds revolt every time.

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