All About Licorice
First off, Twizzlers aren’t really licorice. In fact, many of the candy we think of as “licorice flavor” is in fact flavored with anise. But real licorice, from the root of the licorice plant, is quite amazing stuff. In a recent post, I described the multitudes of licorice candies that were popular in the early 1900s. And licorice itself played an important part in many American industries in the first half of the twentieth century.
A little science: glycyrrhizin is the name of the sweet substance in licorice root. This chemical, found in significant levels only in the root of the licorice plant, is fifty times as sweet as sugar. That’s a lot of sweet!
But the virtues of licorice are not just in the sweetness. Licorice root is a favorite with herbalists today, and boasts a medicinal history going back thousands of years. Licorice root has been used for eons as a health tonic, as a blood purifier, as a means of relief from sore throat and internal inflammations. And it isn’t just good for your insides. Mixed with honey, licorice has been used as a healer of sores and wounds.
Don’t think it’s just the health-foody types who believe in the healing power of licorice. Modern medical researchers are documenting its effects on the body. Did you know licorice (the real stuff) can raise your blood pressure? Of course, you should consult your doctor if you have questions about the medical effects of licorice. But you can safely consult Candy Professor for information about the history of uses of licorice in confectionery and elsewhere.
By the 1930s, U.S. industry was importing some 35,000 tons of licorice root per year, for use in a wide variety of industries. Attempts to grow licorice domestically were unsuccessful, so most licorice root was imported from Spain and Italy where it was cultivated commercially.
The first step in processing the licorice was to shred the roots. Then a process of grinding and sifting and grinding would yield the first product: powdered licorice root, to be used in pharmaceutical prepartions. The coarse remainder would be bathed in a solution, which produced a liquid extract. This second extraction would be reduced to a syrup or paste to form the base needed for candy making, and also for flavoring tobacco.
But they weren’t finished yet. After candy, cigars, and drugs had taken what they needed, the brewers had a turn. Yes, in the olden days, beer makers would add licorice to their brew to give it a foamy head. And the foaming properties of licorice extract suggested yet another use: fire extinguishers. Licorice extinguishers, which formed an oxygen-free foam, became important in fighting oil fires in the days before chemical extinguishers.
At last, there was nothing left of the licorice root but stringy fibers. These were not wasted either. The fiber was dried and made into insulating wall and box board. So the box your licorice candy was packaged in might also be made of licorice!
References: Percy A. Housemna and H. T. Lacey, “The Licorice Root in Industry,” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 1929, 21 (10), pp 915–917; “Licorice Industry Reaches Sixtieth Year in America,” New York Times 26 January 1930.