A Massachusetts construction worker’s love for black licorice ended up costing him his life. Eating a bag and a half each day for a few weeks imbalanced his nutrients and caused the 54-year-old’s heart to stop, doctors reported on Wednesday.
“Even a small amount of licorice that you eat can raise your blood pressure a bit,” said Dr. Neel Butala, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who described the case in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The problem is glycyrrhizic acid, found in black licorice and many other foods and dietary supplements containing licorice root extract. It can cause dangerously low potassium and imbalances in other minerals called electrolytes.
Eating as little as 2 ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks could cause a problem with the heart rhythm, especially for people over 40, the United States Food and Drug Administration warns.
“It’s more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of over the counter stuff. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, contain this compound, ”as do some chewing tobacco, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a cardiologist at the University of Colorado and former president of the American Heart Association. He had no role in the care of the Massachusetts man.
Death was clearly an extreme case. The man had switched from the red, fruit-flavored version to the black licorice version of the candy a few weeks before his death last year. He collapsed while eating lunch at a fast food restaurant. Doctors found he had dangerously low potassium, which led to a heartbeat and other problems. Rescuers performed CPR and he was resuscitated but died the next day.
The FDA allows up to 3.1% of a food’s content to have glycyrrhizic acid, but many candies and other licorice products don’t disclose how much it’s contained per ounce, Butala said. Doctors reported the case to the FDA in hopes of drawing attention to the risk.
Jeff Beckman, a spokesperson for the Hershey Company, which makes the popular Twizzlers licorice twists, said in an email that “all of our products are safe to consume and formulated in full compliance with FDA regulations.” and that all foods, including sweets, “should be enjoyed in moderation. “
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