Monday, October 26, 2009

Why do Scanvinavians love licorice?

This is another previously unpublished draft from the archives. It was originally drafted on January 30, 2008. I'm not really sure why I never finished this one. I'm sure I could dredge up at least a half dozen more possibilities to explain why Scandinavians love licorice, but I'm hitting publish as is.

Scandinavians love licorice. As a general rule - the saltier, the better. Living in Denmark, I've talked to many a Dane and a foreigner about this unusual propensity towards salt liquorice. What makes them so fond of it while people in other countries are repulsed by the taste and absolutely despise it? Moreover, why do Scandinavians tend to favor progressively saltier licorice as they get older, moving from mintier, children's varieties to salt-infused adult-only types? One friend, Libby (of Copenhagen Revisited), believes that there may be some kind of tolerance build-up over the years as Scandinavians are culturally encouraged to frequently indulge in liquorice treats. Or, perhaps Scandinavians share a genetic inclination towards liquorice, similar to the way the are genetically inclined towards blue eyes and blonde hair (in comparison to people of other cultures).

I did some quick, Google-aided research on liquorice because I was curious about possible health benefits of frequent liquorice consumption. I wonder if, over time, Scandinavians have taken to eating mass-quantities of liquorice as a kind of inadvertent herbal remedy against ailments that may plague the Northern-dwelling residents to an extent significantly greater than other places in the world.

My findings were as follows:

1. Licorice Derivative May Slow Karposi's Scarcoma - According to the American Cancer Society's website, a "sarcoma is a cancer that develops in connective tissues such as cartilage, bone, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or fibrous tissues (related to tendons or ligaments). Kaposi sarcoma (KS) was named for Dr. Moritz Kaposi who first described it in 1872. For decades KS was considered a rare disease that mostly affected elderly men of Mediterranean or Jewish heritage, organ transplant patients, or young adult African men. This type is called classic Kaposi sarcoma." (For a detailed description of KS symptoms and it's general manifestation, please go here) Already, it seems that as there are not significant populations of any of these typical 'types' for whom KS usually strikes in Scandinavia, preventing against KS does not seem to be a likely reason for Scandinavian propensity towards salt liquorice.

The ACS website continues by stating that in the last 20 years most cases of KS have developed in association with HIV and AIDS, esp. (as these diseases oft tend to be, among homosexual males). This strain is deferentiated and specified as AIDs-related KS. Like the latter, however, I don't believe that AID-related KS is the reason for Scandinavian licorice consumption, as HIV and AIDs are primarily found in homosexual male populations in Europe and percentages of infected persons are seemingly declining (at a rate that is likely not corollary with licorice consumption!)

2. This Study (on a website that admittedly looks largely non-academic and thus, none-too-trustworthy) claims that eating black liquorice may reduce body fat without any side effects. "Our study showed that licorice intake of 3.5 grams a day [roughly 1.4 ounces] reduced body fat up to 4% without any change in blood pressure," says co-author Carlo De Palo, MD, a clinical researcher at the University of Padua. "One explanation is that the strong taste of licorice suppresses the appetite," he adds.

Perhaps Scandinavians eat licorice to stay thin, though a 4% decrease in body fat hardly seems like anything to write home about. Moreso, judging purely phenotypically, I think Scandinavians have a genetic disposition to be relatively thin, so I don't see a need for them to eat licorice to stay thin. Hmmm...

3. Drug Derived from Licorice Improves Memory - A British study found that a drug derived from licorice root improves memory in older men and may protect against age-related cognitive decline. The drug, carbenoxolone, which is usually used in treatment of stomach ulcers, boosted memory and slightly augmented subtle memory decline in healthy older men with type 2 diabetes.

This study is relatively useless to me for a number of reasons. First, the study was extremely small, with only 10 subjects. Second, researchers used word association and verbal tests to evaluate subject's memory, tests in which there is extreme variation in all populations. Furthermore, if the researchers really wanted to test carbenoxolene's usage as a combatant against memory decline or towards memory improvement, it seems they would have needed to run a longitudinal study... not a series of piddly word association tests!

The study goes on to talk about specific compounds, etc., but it does not mention if the chemicals found in carbenoxolene are available with regular consumption of liquorice or if it can only be garnered through a modified derivation process.

4. Treating Latent Herpes with Licorice - This is another dodgy looking site, but claims that findings of a recent study have found that a compound in licorice shows promise for treatment of latent, lingering herpes virus. The compound, glycyrrhizic acid kills cells of the herpes virus that cause... guess what... Kaposi Sarcoma! Glycyrrhizic acid targets key proteins involved in the latency without causing a toxic effect on tissues. Researchers hope that their findings will lead to drugs that can eradicate herpes from the body altogether.

Again, not really sure if this may be why Scandinavians eat so much licorice. Do they have a lot of herpes here?

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