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Dr. Zorba Paster: Black licorice can cause problems

Candy alert! Candy alert!

As I mentioned in a previous column, chocolate in moderation is good for you – reducing heart attacks and stroke. Quite a few of you shouted hooray! Finally something good we can sink our teeth into.

But as you know, a lot of candy is simply manufactured wasted calories with no health benefits. Now there’s a twist to that argument – black licorice twists, to be precise.

I know. I know many of you don’t like the black, chewy stuff. My girlfriend in high school, Becky, was that way. When we went to the movies, I bought “Good and Plenty” and she bought juju bees. She never wanted to share.

Recently, however, I found that this candy connection may have affected one of my favorite patients. He had end stage heart failure, necessitating a ton of diuretics and loads of potassium. To our dismay, no matter what we did his potassium would go up one day and down the next. Hard to control and dangerous, too.

What I didn’t know was that every other day he’d go and buy two pounds of good black licorice. By the time his wife drove him home, he had consumed one of the bags, and by that evening another bag. I know that’s a ton of licorice, but he was a husky (does anyone still use that word?) guy.

We didn’t understand then that licorice was a major part of the puzzle.

Here’s what the Food and Drug Administration says: If you’re 40 or older and eat just two ounces of real black licorice day after day, your potassium level may drop through the floor. Our friend was eating 32 ounces in a day.

Low potassium can cause heart rhythm problems (bad), heart failure and a precipitous drop in blood pressure.

The compound in “real” licorice that gives it its flavor and does this is “glycyrrhizin,” derived from licorice root. Licorice root is in lots of folk remedies from Turkey, Persia and India as a cure for heartburn, sore throats, coughs and colds.

Cheap black licorice, however, doesn’t cause this problem because it is “artificially” flavored with anise oil.

My spin: If you’re a licorice aficionado and are on a diuretic, have heart problems or problems controlling your blood pressure, be smart. An ounce here, an ounce there and you’re fine – but don’t pork out. Like all things, moderation might be the key. Oh and by the way, red licorice is safe – it’s not made with licorice root.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio call-in show at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.