Licorice Root - Why is it so sweet?!
Licorice or as it is botanically known - Glycyrrhiza glabra has been around for centuries, much associate licorice with that of the tar-like black confectionary with the strong bitter and sweet paradox of flavor sensations on our tongue, something we see often 'mature' as we age. Many children who taste licorice for the first time find it so repulsive and often spit it out in disgust.
Like Coriander, pineapple on pizza, and chocolate in the fridge or cupboard… there is a great divide on licorice and those who love or hate it, so why the polarising taste difference is it a gene differentiation like coriander?
History of Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Glycyrrhiza glabra is Native to Eurasia, in central and south-western Asia, and the Mediterranean region. It is grown in warm subtropical climates and thrives in lime dense, deep loose soil with full sun and is not often affected by frost either, it’s a very versatile and hardy plant. Upon fresh extraction, the root itself, where licorice extract is extracted from, is a bright yellow-auburn color and in many countries is chewed as a fresh root for its breath-freshening and palette cleansing capabilities.
It is often chewed and has been seen for centuries as a sweet satisfactory herb, and the root is chewed on for this aspect. This is because of the natural sweetener like constituent ‘Glycyrrhizin’. This compound found naturally occurring and carried across into properly extracted licorice extract from the root, to put into perspective, is 50 times sweeter than sucrose! Its often used in cooking to balance out the higher salt flavour profiles and as a flavour enhancer for this reason as it is also very heat stable.
Chemosensory receptors of the tongue
Our taste receptors on the tongue are varied across your sweet, salty, umami, bitter, sour basic tastes as we are all aware a lemon’s juice is interpreted vastly different to that of apples, etc. What is the point of these receptors? Well for instance, in the taste receptors that communicate that something is perceived as ‘sweet’ to us, they also reside in the gastrointestinal tract and hypothalamus – this signaling that something is sweet is important for nutrient sensing, monitoring developments and changes of energy stores and as such triggering metabolic and behavioral responses to help mediate and maintain the balance of energy stores.
So, when you have licorice as proper licorice root itself in the traditional sense and or chewing on the root itself, being that it is 50 times sweeter than sugar this can often be off-putting to some who have very sensitive taste receptors. Unknown if it’s a gene or not at this stage, however. So, if you have a sweet tooth, there is every possibility you could very much enjoy the natural nectar of this traditional herb.
Confectionery Licorice Vs the Root
Confectionery licorice uses the root extract and is often mixed with other components such as Fennel and Anise to give it that greeny/black like look and taste. Then you have Holland who threw licorice on its head with traditional manufacture of licorice confectionery and created “dutch licorice”. Dutch licorice is salted and is traditionally termed ‘salmiak’ licorice because of the salimak salt used in its production. You can get normally salted, double, and triple salted if you are up to it, and it's intense, a very acquired taste for sure!
Take home message –
What can you expect when you drink licorice tea? Well, it's NOT going to taste like confectionery licorice and it's definitely not going to be salty! It's quite naturally sweet and will send your tongue into a paradoxical state of delight.
So if you want to enjoy the properties of this ancient root that have been revered by monks, infamous Greek philosophers, ancient wartime heroes for thousands of years and even in more recent modern-day times; many medical experts, then this herb and all of its history and insightful literature is for you!
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