Compounds In Licorice Root May Help fight Tooth Decay

How can a favorite ingredient in candy possibly help in the prevention of cavities?

Although it seems counter-intuitive, researchers at UCLA have been looking into licorice root extract to see if it may inhibit the growth of the bacteria that leads to tooth decay.

Licorice root is among those medicinal herbs that aren't true herbs (technically, herbs refer to dried leaves and/or grasses). The plant itself is actually a legume, related to beans and peas, and like other legumes, produces pods containing the seeds of the plant which can be boiled and eaten like any other bean. It is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe (it is a primary flavoring in the popular Greek liqueur known as ouzo) as well as parts of Asia. In the U.S., it is the predominant flavor of that unique American beverage, root beer.

Licorice root is also included among the extensive list of Chinese herbs used both in the kitchen as a spice and in the traditional medicine of that country.

Traditionally, licorice root is among the medicinal herbs that have been used in naturopathic treatments for its expectorant properties.

Licorice root is usually boiled; the extract is left behind once the water has evaporated. According to the UCLA study, this extract contains at least two biochemical compounds that researchers believe may inhibit the growth of streptococcus mutans, the variety of bacteria known to cause plaque and ultimately destroy tooth enamel.

Significantly, it was a Chinese researcher, Dr. Wen-yuan Shi, who was instrumental in confirming what his ancestors had understood for the past 5,000 years. After studying 400 of the most commonly used Chinese herbs, Dr. Shi found that the licorice root extract contained the proverbial "magic bullet." In an article dated 6 February 2008 published on MedGadget, Dr. Shi was quoted as saying that "in both Chinese and in Western cultures, people have been chewing it maybe for the taste, but it also has a lot of good health reasons. It stimulates saliva flows, has anti-bacterial properties and keeps bacteria from adhering to your teeth."

So... does licorice root extract really combat tooth-rotting bacteria?

According to Dr. Shi and his colleague, Dr. Qing-Yi Lu, the jury is still out on this issue; both researchers have stated that additional studies will be needed in order to confirm whether or not the extract from licorice root is indeed anathema to streptococcus mutans. Nonetheless, according to the MedGadget report, a company called C3 Jian is moving forward with the development of an anti-cavity lollipop - of which Dr. Shi's staff members have become very fond. He reports that "the difficulty is that the support staff keeps eating them!"