A New Food to Avoid During Pregnancy: Licorice!

Licorice pregnant

If you are pregnant, you already know there are lots of foods you need to avoid. Well, add a new one. A 2017 study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that women in Finland who ate a lot of licorice had children with higher rates of early puberty, lower IQ scores, and higher risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Don’t panic if you are pregnant and you have snacked on some licorice. This was only one study, and not a very big one. The study was conducted at the University of Helsinki. There were 398 children in the study who have been followed since their birth in 1998. Of these children, 51 were born to mothers who were exposed to high amounts of licorice.

Details of the Study

To be in the high group, mothers had to consume over 500 milligrams of glycyrrhizin, the active ingredient of licorice. Glycyrrhizin makes up only a small percentage of licorice, so that is a lot of licorice. In Finland, there is a salty licorice snack called salmiakki. Fins eat more licorice than most people.

Here is what the study found for the kids in the high licorice group compared to other kids in the study:

  • Girls in the group (but nor boys) had about a 25 percent higher rate of early puberty.
  • Girls and boys in the group scored seven points lower in IQ scores.
  • Girls and boys in the group has three times the risk of ADHD.

Although this was one small study, it is likely that a lot of pregnancy caregivers will take note and add licorice to the list of foods to be avoided during pregnancy. Other foods on the list include raw meat, uncooked seafood, deli meats, fish with mercury, smoked seafood, raw eggs, and soft cheeses.

More About Licorice

This was not the first study to link licorice to problems for pregnancy. In 2002, another study from Finland, also published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, linked high licorice consumption to an increased risk for preterm delivery. The Fins are on to something with licorice. That study was also small. There were only 19 women who reported heavy licorice use in the study. But they had double the rate of preterm delivery.

Licorice root has been used for centuries as a medicinal. In Greece, China, and Egypt it has been used to treat stomach and upper respiratory problems. Its main use today is as a sweetener. The word glycyrrhizin comes from the Greek word for sweet, and it is much sweeter than sugar. Although licorice still is found in some herbal medicines, there are no studies proving any true benefits. In very large amounts, it can cause high blood pressure.

Bottom Line

Add licorice to foods to avoid during pregnancy. You can do without. Remember that licorice is not just a candy. It is also found in chewing gum, cookies, herbal teas, and drinks.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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