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Licorice during pregnancy linked to health issues for kids

Women who consume licorice during pregnancy might be more likely to have children with cognitive or behavioral problems than mothers who don't eat a lot of this candy while they're pregnant, a small Finnish study suggests.

Some previous lab experiments have linked glycyrrhizin, a natural sweetener in licorice root, to changes in the placenta that may make it easier for the stress hormone cortisol to travel from mothers to their developing babies, said lead study author Katri Raikkonen of the University of Helsinki. Some cortisol aids fetal development, but too much may alter neurodevelopmental processes and contribute to cognitive or behavior issues later in life, Raikkonen said by email.

For the current study, researchers examined data on 378 children born in Helsinki in 1998 and their mothers, quizzing the women on licorice consumption after they gave birth and then assessing children for developmental issues when they were about 13 years old.

Girls and boys born to mothers who ate a lot of licorice during pregnancy—which researchers defined as an amount containing at least 500 milligrams (0.02 ounces) of glycyrrhizin a week—scored lower on intelligence tests, had poorer memory and higher odds of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than children whose mothers consumed little or no licorice during pregnancy, the study found.

Girls also appeared to start puberty sooner when mothers ate a lot of licorice during pregnancy.

"Our findings therefore suggest that it would be sensible to avoid licorice and other food products that contain glycyrrhizin during the 40 weeks of pregnancy," Raikkonen said.

Not all licorice contains a lot of glycyrrhizin, Katherine Keyes, a public health researcher at Columbia University Medical Center in New York said in a phone interview.

"If you are going to avoid something in pregnancy, there is much more evidence for avoiding alcohol or smoking," said Keyes, who wasn't involved in the study. "With licorice consumption the science is still not clear."

"Women are bombarded during pregnancy with so many things they can't do and not listen because it's too much," Keyes added. "Focusing on alcohol and tobacco is the most important, and focusing on other things like licorice is less important."