Licorice root is the root of the licorice plant, a member of the pea family which has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. In addition to being used as a culinary flavoring, it also plays a role in some traditional medical practices, especially Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where it is known as gan zao. The medical value of licorice root is a subject of debate; most scientific testing suggests that it may not provide that many benefits, although it does not appear to be harmful.
Several forms of licorice root are commercially available. Many natural foods stores stock the whole dried roots, which can be ground at home or used to make herbal tisanes. It can also be found in powder and capsule form, for people taking it as a nutritional supplement, and it is often found in herbal tea blends. Culinary licorice extract is also available, for people who want to use it as a flavoring.
The flavor of licorice root is sweet, with a lingering finish and a faint hint of anise. Anise is in fact used as a substitute for this root in many sweets, since it is stronger, with a more asserting flavor. The sweetness of is caused by glycyrrhizic acid, a naturally sweet compound which releases slowly into the system, unlike sucrose, which has a more immediate effect.
In medicine, licorice has been used by many people including the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Glycyrrhiza glabra, or European licorice, is one of the most common species, with the Chinese using G. uralensis, while Americans harvest G. lepidota. Fans of licorice root believe that it helps with intestinal complaints such as ulcers, and it may also be consumed to treat sore throats, bronchitis, and other respiratory issues. Some people also believe that licorice root may be helpful for viral infections such as Hepatitis C, although this usage may not be effective, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health in the United States.
As a flavoring, licorice root is a distinctive and interesting addition to sweets. People who intend to take it as a dietary supplement should consult their physicians, however, as it may conflict with some medications. This is the case with all herbal supplements and natural medical treatments; a doctor will be able to provide better care if she or he has a full picture. You should also always see a doctor if the symptoms you are treating do not improve.