This story is part of Junk Food, Redefined, our new collection of snack recommendations, recipes, and perspectives that celebrate an undervalued food group. Read all the stories here.
After stuffing myself silly with french fries and corn dogs at the agricultural fair in Adelaide, South Australia, kid-me would relish going home and dizzily spreading my candy haul out on my bed. I’d go to town on the gooey caramels encased in chocolate, raspberry chews, and fizzy orange sherbets. Those were God-tier. Bottom of the barrel? Black jellybeans—and stuck-together clumps of foul, fennel-y licorice.
To me, licorice tastes like a cross between tree sap and molten tar that’s been congealed and pressed into strips tough as literal leather. I’ve always marveled that it’s the confection seemingly as divisive as climate change and crunchy peanut butter, yet, inexplicably, stays on the shelves.
It’s made from an unholy union of licorice extract, sugar, and some manner of binding agent. Beeswax is usually responsible for the characteristic rubbery sheen, and molasses (or a deal with the devil?) is what creates the ebony color. In Australia, where I’m from, licorice tends to be a staple for dads, nannas, and people who haven’t gotten the memo that candy’s had a come-up.
Despite its ample supporters, I’m not the only one who finds the stuff hard to love. In a 2012 story for NBC News, writer Meghan Holohan tried to get to the bottom of what makes licorice so polarizing. The anise-y flavor comes from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, and you’ll find its pungent essence in various products, from Jägermeister to NyQuil. Although, unlike the case with cilantro, there’s no gene dictating whether or not you can stand the taste of licorice—it appears you’re either born liking it or not. In all my years I have not learned to love it. Another theory is that some people seem to have an aversion to glycyrrhizin, the natural sweetener present in licorice root that tastes like the saccharin in those bright pink Sweet’N Low packets.
How licorice wormed its way past our lips in the first place is a mystery to me. Yet worm it did. Licorice’s appearance on the culinary and medicinal stages really dates back to prehistoric times. In 400 BC, Greek physician Hippocrates was apparently telling anyone who’d listen about the potent ingredient and its potential to treat ulcers and quench thirst. Alexander the Great doled out rations to his troops to keep them hydrated on long marches. And explorers even found stockpiles of licorice, an ingredient used in ancient Egypt to make sweet drinks, in Tutankhamun’s tomb—alongside other arguably more valuable Egyptian treasures.
The root that’s still used to make licorice extract today comes from a flowering shrub that thrives in the rich soils and subtropical climates found primarily in European, Middle Eastern, and South Asian countries. Meaning “sweet root” in Greek, glycyrrhizin may sound like an unfortunate diagnosis, but the name is apt: The compound is 40 times sweeter than sugar. Licorice root comes with a host of supposed benefits, including the ability to help suppress coughs and clear phlegm from your airways, as well as reduce inflammation and viral loads. It’s also suspected to fight cancer, diabetes, and dental disease, though the science on this has been as mixed as a bag of assorted sweets.