Years ago I got a surprise while studying herbs. I got a chance to taste raw licorice root. I expected a flavor similar to the black candy of my youth. What I tasted as I sucked on a piece of licorice root, was a rather bland flavor. I soon spit out the root, not because it tasted bad, but because I couldn't stand the overpowering sweetness. We all think about the flavor of black licorice candy as unique and we assume that the the flavor is the flavor of the licorice plant. The sweetness of traditional licorice candy does come from the licorice plant, the flavor however is from the oil of the anise plant.
Both Licorice and Anise are very important in various herbal traditions around the world. Licorice, called gan cao is one of the most important herbs in Chinese medicine. While it rarely was used alone or as the main herb in a medicinal formula, it is the most important herb for harmonizing other herbs. Herbal medical formulas often mix extreme flavors to produce a medicinal effect. Licorice root is unique in its ability to blend flavors together.
Traditional licorice candy is an extract of licorice root to produce the sweetness and the black color of the candy. A compound in licorice called glycyrrhizin is almost 50 times as sweet as table sugar. Despite this, some Chinese herbal formulas call for zhi gan cao, which is licorice root fried in honey. Anise flavor from the seeds of the anise plant, is added to give the candy the distinctive flavor.
Some people are suggesting caution when using licorice root as a herbal medicine. There are some reported problems with negative side effects. These seem to stem from using the herb in large quantities over a long time with out being properly mixed in a formula. Under these conditions almost any herb can create negative side effects. Remember, licorice was rarely used as the main herb of a formula. It is almost exclusively used to modify or harmonize other herbs.
Anise has a strong flavor and a long history as an important herb throughout the Mediterranean and Asia minor. It was used mostly for conditions of the digestive tract as well as an aphrodisiac. For both of these reasons, anise was often used to flavor many foods and medicines. It was also used to make the alcoholic beverage absinthe. The use of anise is known to go back before recorded history. Today however the anise flavor is more recognized as "licorice flavor", but should be properly attributed to the anise plant.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066