What Is Glycyrrhizic Acid? Man Dies Weeks After Starting to Eat Large Bags of Licorice Each Day

A 54-year-old man who ate bags of licorice a day died after his heart stopped, according to doctors who believe a substance known as glycyrrhizic acid played a role in his death.

The unnamed construction worker was at a fast-food restaurant when he "gasped suddenly," his entire body started shaking, and he lost consciousness, his doctors wrote in a case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday.

The man was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was found to have low potassium levels and other tell-tale signs of consuming too much glycyrrhizic acid, the doctors noted.

Glycyrrhizic acid, or glycyrrhizin, is a sweetening compound from the licorice root, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has previously warned against eating too much black licorice.

The substance can cause potassium levels in the body to fall, which in turn can cause congestive heart failure, trigger abnormal heart rhythms, as well as high blood pressure, swelling, and lethargy.

After a series of tests, the man was admitted to a cardiac intensive care unit, and doctors were able to ask family and friends about his lifestyle.

They learned the patient had a "poor diet" and was eating one or two large packets of soft candy per day. Three weeks before he died, he switched from fruit-flavored candy to licorice containing glycyrrhizic acid. The doctors believe his illness may have been related to his diet.

The man did not drink alcohol, and smoked one packet of cigarettes daily for 36 years. He had a history of heroin use, but had not had any adverse reactions to drugs and had reportedly been clean for the previous three years. He had no history of chest pain, breathing problems, heart failure symptoms, or problems with his heart rhythm.

The patient suffered a cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure, according to his team of doctors.

Dr. Neel Butala, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who treated the patient, told the Associated Press: "Even a small amount of licorice you eat can increase your blood pressure a little bit."

The FDA advises against eating large amounts of black licorice at one time, and to stop immediately if you have been eating large quantities and have an irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness. Those aged 40 years old or over risk ending up in hospital by eating two ounces of black licorice a day for at least two weeks.

Dr. Linda Katz of the FDA said in a 2017 FDA Consumer Update that a person's potassium levels usually go back to normal when they stop eating black licorice.

black liquorice, glycyrrhizic acid, stock, getty
A stock image shows a wheel of black liquorice. A man died after eating bags of licorice over the course of three weeks.