Doctors at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Mass. General report on the death of a local construction worker who spent three weeks eating pretty much just black licorice.
The worker, 54, had not previously reported heart problems, despite being a pack-a-day smoker. He went into ventricular fibrillation and collapsed in a fast-food restaurant and was brought into the emergency room unconscious, according to their report in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Doctors immediately noted his blood potassium level was dangerously low. They tried increasing it and gave him other medicines to help him, but nothing worked, he had suffered "multiorgan failure," remained completely unresponsive and died 32 hours after admission.
Doctors began to suspect licorice after ruling out other possible causes of his potassium deficiency, such as the use of digitalis, a drug used for certain heart conditions, which the man hadn't been taking, various sorts of tumors or even excessive vomiting, which he had not been doing. A talk with his family confirmed the suspicion:
He had a poor diet, consisting primarily of several packages of candy daily; 3 weeks earlier, he had switched the type of candy he was eating ... from eating fruit-flavored soft candy to eating licorice-flavored soft candy that contained glycyrrhizic acid, which is converted to glycyrrhetinic acid after it is consumed.
The acid, found in licorice root, makes the stuff taste slightly less awful than it otherwise would, but can cause heart-rhythm problems and disrupt a person's body chemistry if consumed to excess, in part by interrupting the body's regulation of potassium levels.
The doctors wrote that the effects of excessive licorice consumption are not permanent - assuming it doesn't kill you first - although it can take a week or two for the body to eliminate harmful amounts of it.