Massachusetts man dies after eating bags of black licorice

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A Massachusetts construction worker’s love of black licorice has caused his untimely death. Eating a bag and a half every day for a few weeks threw his nutrients out of whack and caused his heart to stop, doctors reported Wednesday.

“Even a small amount of licorice you eat can increase your blood pressure a little bit,” said Dr. Neel Butala, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who described the case in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The problem is glycyrrhizic acid, found in black licorice and in many other foods and dietary supplements containing licorice root extract. It can cause dangerously low potassium and imbalances in other minerals called electrolytes

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“It’s more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of things over the counter. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, have this compound in it,” as do some chewing tobaccos, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a University of Colorado cardiologist and former American Heart Association president. He had no role in the Massachusetts man’s care.

Doctors found that the 54-year-old man had dangerously low potassium, which led to heart rhythm and other problems.

He lost consciousness inside a fast-food restaurant, according to the report. Emergency responders did CPR and he was revived and taken to a hospital, but he died the next day.

Doctors wrote that he had “a poor diet, consisting primarily of several packages of candy daily,” and that three weeks before, he switched from eating fruit-flavored soft candy to licorice candy, which contained glycyrrhizic acid.

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Eating as little as 2 ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks could cause a heart rhythm problem, especially for folks over 40, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns.

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