Licorice is bad news for pregnant women, a study has found.

Published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the study showed that the candy and the natural sweetener it contains, glycyrrhizin, can lead to long-term harmful effects on fetal development. The results support Finnish food recommendations for families with children, with pregnant women being advised to avoid eating large quantities of licorice although a safe consumption limit was not established.

Licorice And Pregnant Women

The study was carried out by the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital districts, Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare, and the University of Helsinki. It involved 378 children, each about 13 years of age. Their mothers consumed licorice while carrying them to term, either eating little to no licorice or large quantities of the candy during their pregnancy.

Katri Räikkönen and colleagues defined "little to no" as no more than 249mg glycyrrhizin a week while "large quantities" was established as over 500mg of the natural sweetener. Consuming 500mg of glycyrrhizin is equivalent to eating 250g of licorice on average.

The researchers discovered that youths exposed to large quantities of licorice while they were in the womb performed poorly in cognitive reasoning tests administered by a psychologist compared to those who were exposed to safer levels of the candy while developing as fetuses. According to their findings, the researchers saw a difference in IQ levels by about 7 points.

Additionally, study subjects who were exposed to high levels of licorice did worse in tasks designed to measure memory capacity and, based on estimates provided by parents, had more ADHD-type of problems. Girls from the group also experienced puberty earlier.

Licorice Pregnancy Effects

Animal models made it possible to understand the biological mechanism behind how licorice affects pregnant women. For starters, glycyrrhizin increases the effects of cortisol by inhibiting an enzyme responsible for deactivating the stress hormone. Cortisol plays a role in fetal development but only in appropriate levels. In large amounts, the hormone becomes detrimental instead.

Glycyrrhizin also elevates blood pressure, which can lead to pregnancy complications, although it has been shown as well to be a direct cause of shorter pregnancies.

Licorice Warning For Pregnant Women

According to the researchers, it is important that those pregnant and women planning on getting pregnant should be notified of the harmful effects of licorice and other products containing glycyrrhizin on a developing fetus.

In Finland, food recommendations from the country's National Institute for Health and Welfare already reflect this, what with licorice falling under the "not recommended" category for pregnant women. However, the researchers also noted that occasionally consuming the sweet, such as a few portions or as added to ice cream, should not be a cause for concern, highlighting the importance of proportion.

The Finns are a step ahead with food recommendations for licorice because a large number of Finland's population have been exposed to the candy's natural sweetener in the womb. Glycyrrhizin has been established to be one of the many possible factors that can affect fetal development but the researchers can't say for a fact that the licorice ingredient is the cause of a developmental issue in a particular individual.

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