We Can Silence the Black Licorice Alarm Now

Nutrition’s important. I get that. Foods are not without their complications, and we need to be aware of those risks. But of all the nutritional warning bells that need to be rung at full-volume for nearly a week, is black licorice really one of them?

The FDA came out late last week with a warning about the dangers of eating black licorice (arrhythmias, electrolyte imbalance, high blood pressure), particularly in the 40+ crowd. Oh, and by ‘eating,’ I mean, ‘consuming over two ounces of the stuff every day for weeks at a time.’ By the time I hit my weekly news binge on Sunday, not one, not a handful, but damn near 70 news outlets and publications picked it up and churned it back out. This included the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the Globe, MSNBC, Fox, the Huffington Post, Reuters (although they were pretty tongue-in-cheek), and Time.

Was this really warranted?

I like true black licorice, and my mom does, too. Neither of us would ever want to eat it for two weeks straight. Nobody else in my circle has ever professed to me a fondness for the stuff — most appear to actively consider it the demonspawn of candy.

In terms of how much licorice is given out on Halloween compared to other candies, or how much of anything is given out, really, there’s not a lot of tracking going on, according to the Atlantic’s excellent dissection of the Halloween’s economics. That said, they do paraphrase a National Confectioner’s Association rep, who indicates that candies then are more or less on par with what sells for the rest of the year, just in smaller bits.

Going off that then, the rest of year is heavily dominated by chocolate. It makes up over 50 percent of candy dollars, which I can totally understand and probably contribute quite a bit to myself. Licorice sales have been on the rise in the last couple years, but to the best of my understanding, these figures don’t distinguish between black licorice, and everything else vaguely stringy and chewy, which can include black anise-flavored licorice, red licorice, and a host of bizarre new licorices flavored everything from pineapple to marionberry.

The FDA hung their report on the imminent arrival of the sugar-laced Halloween holiday. But who among you is handing out black, made-from-the-shrub, licorice to trick or treaters? You don’t just go buy that off the CVS shelf like you do the invariably popular sacks of bite-sized Snickers/Butterfingers/M&Ms/etc,etc. People are not handing out fistfuls of this on Halloween, not to kids, who would probably junk it anyway, nor, for that matter, to 40+ year olds, who aren’t going door-to-door for candy of their own. For that matter, it really doesn’t seem like people are consuming it on their own in large, chronic quantities. Even the FDA noted in their report that they’d had all of one report of a licorice fan eating herself into a problem last year, and every once in a while, the medical lit will report a similar case.

When the FDA wants to talk about major, acute health problems caused by eating multiple ounces of chocolate every day for a couple weeks (or, you know, years), I will be right there, sounding the alarm bell and screaming about it for weeks. But for now, when it comes to licorice, I think we can stop worrying. I think we’re going to be OK.