How much antioxidants are there in licorice root? Over 20x more than fresh blueberries by weight!
To be clear, we're not talking about Twizzlers or Red Vines. Those don't even contain licorice extract. In fact if you look closely, you will notice the word does not appear anywhere on their packaging. However real licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is generally found in the black versions of the candy and it has played a part in both Western and Eastern medicine for a very long time, possibly even thousands of years.
What is it?
The licorice plant is a perennial herb which grows 1 to 3 feet in height. Because it likes sunlight and is drought resistant, many homeowners across America use this silvery green bush to help highlight the bright colors of adjacent flowers. As a crop, it is grown primarily in India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and a number of Middle Eastern countries. It is only the root of the plant which is used for food and medicinal purpose.
Today it is best known for confectionery flavorings and perhaps as a tobacco additive, but as an herbal medicine, licorice root extract has been shown to have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Before people even knew what germs and viruses were, tea made using the root extract was used as a remedy for colds and respiratory infections.
Why it may be the worst antioxidant
What many people may not be aware of is that you can eat too much licorice. The side effect of hypokalemia, which is a deficiency of potassium in the bloodstream, as well as resulting muscle weakness from elevated creatine phosphokinase (CPK). As of 1991, the European Union has advised limiting consumption to no more than 100 mg per day of its active ingredient which is glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhizic acid) (1). That equates to just about 3 ounces of a quality black licorice candy.
Since the antioxidant activity of flavonoids which are isolated from licorice is high, its extract is a niche nutritional product. Licorice root supplements are marketed for adrenal fatigue, since the glycyrrhizin may increase cortisol levels. Though we would advise not using it for this purpose without the guidance of your doctor. Known as the stress hormone, you definitely don't want too high of cortisol levels either, as a whole array of health problems can arise from that, many of which are not easily detectable.
Given the dangerous side effects which are possible, ultimately this ingredient is probably best suited as an occasional confectionery treat, rather than as a licorice supplement for adrenal fatigue or as dried powder you eat daily for antioxidant content.
Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 13, Issue 1. NIH 2007