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Why Pregnant Women Should Avoid Licorice

Every expectant mom knows there are certain foods they should avoid during pregnancy. Any raw fish or meat, alcohol, and deli meats are all well-known pregnancy no-nos. Now, a new study suggests that eating licorice while pregnant may be harmful to your baby because it may affect their cognitive abilities later on in life, according to a report published in The New York Times.

Finnish researchers analyzed data from 1,049 mothers and their healthy infants born in Finland in 1998 and found that glycyrrhizin, a sweetener that naturally comes from the root of a licorice plant, is responsible for the concern. They reported that it can increase the levels of the stress-management hormone cortisol and, in pregnant women, the spiked levels may tamper with a fetus’ nervous system.

The findings, which were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology earlier this month, showed that the children of mothers who ate the most licorice while they were pregnant scored lower on IQ tests and had a higher risk of ADHD than the children of mothers who ate the least amount of licorice. According to The New York Times, girls in the high-consumption group also “tended to reach puberty earlier and have a higher body mass index.”

“We know that there are limitations in observational studies like this,” Katri Raikkonen, the lead author of the study, told The New York Times. “But we have tried to account for numerous variables, and we know from animal studies that there are detrimental consequences for offspring of mothers who consume glycyrrhizin. Insofar as you can avoid it during pregnancy, you should do so.”

Glycyrrhizin is a popular sweetener found in many soft drinks, food products, snacks and herbal medicines, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. But as pointed out back in 2015, “not all licorice-style candies use the root Glycyrrhiza glabra as a flavoring agent.”

Essentially, reading labels is key if you’ve got a craving for licorice that you can’t seem to kick and make sure to avoid a product that lists "licorice extract" or "licorice root extract" as an ingredient in the candy. And if you were worried about what to get the next time you’re at the movies, remember that Twizzlers and Red Vines are totally safe as they don't use glycyrrhizin to make the candy. "Red licorice is a total fraud", according to The Huffington Post.

Like everything during pregnancy, moderation is key. As for these new licorice limitations, you would have to eat a lot of pure licorice for your baby’s cognitive development to be harmed by it. As The New York Times noted, the “high-consumption” mothers used in the study consumed more than 500 milligrams of glycyrrhizin a week, which is about 8.8 ounces of pure licorice. That’s more than half a pound in seven days.

Unless you’re a major licorice fan, then the study’s findings shouldn't affect soon-to-be moms too much, although keeping an eye out for glycyrrhizin in your sweets, teas, and other drinks is definitely a good idea.