The Netherlands' Love for Licorice

Licorice assortment
Ali K / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

With a consumption of over 4 pounds per person per year, licorice is the most loved candy in the Netherlands. In fact, more than 20% of all candy sold in the Netherlands is drop (the Dutch word for "licorice"). Along with Dutch cheese and hagelslag (Dutch sprinkles), licorice is one of the items that over half of all Dutch vacation goers won't leave home without, according to a recent survey.

Harvesting and Production of Licorice

It may seem surprising that while the obsession with licorice is strongest in Northern European countries, such as Finland, Iceland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands, the licorice root itself is actually native to Southern Europe. The barky roots of the glycyrrhiza glabra plant are harvested in the autumn, after which the roots are dried, ground, and boiled. The pulp is then filtered, concentrated, poured into molds, and left to dry. The resulting product is called block licorice, which is sold to candy manufacturers, traditionally wrapped in bay leaves, and transported to their factories, where it is processed further.

While licorice isn't grown in The Netherlands, the country is one of the largest licorice candy producers in the European Union. In 2008, the Netherlands' total candy production was valued at  €1.3 billion (over $1.4 billion) and it was responsible for approximately one-third of the EU production of licorice candy and -extract, then valued at some €90 million (over $99 million). In 2011, Dutch licorice sales amounted to some €168 million (over $185 million).

Medicinal Properties of Licorice

Licorice is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and has been used as a medicine since ancient times by many cultures. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda and licorice root was even found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Flemish author Jacob van Maerlant wrote about licorice as a remedy for the cough and respiratory conditions in his natural history encyclopedia, published in The Netherlands in the 13th century.

Licorice is still commonly used as a lozenge to soothe sore throats in the Netherlands. The lingering perception that licorice is medicinal - and therefore good for you - does have a negative side. Some Dutch mothers offer their children a dropje in lieu of candy, forgetting that it contains just as much sugar as regular sweets, in addition to a hefty dose of salt in some varieties. Salty licorice is also known to raise blood pressure, but only when consumed in large quantities. This is likely caused by the glycyrrhizin content rather than the salt.

Endless Drop Varieties

Today, this Dutch culinary icon is available in many textures, tastes, shapes, and sizes. You'll find sweet and salty varieties, including the infamous dubbel zout, or "double salt", which is only recommended for die-hard drop fans. There are also hard and soft versions of Dutch licorice: some people like to suck on their drop like a lozenge, others prefer a chewy candy. Common shapes include coins, shoelaces, cats, cars, pyramids, hearts, and herrings, to name only a few. Dutch licorice is often flavored with menthol, bay leaf, or honey. In fact, the bay leaf flavor is simply an enhancement of the flavoring the bay leaves give off during transportation. A variety of licorice with added ammonium chloride, known as salmiak, is also popular in the Netherlands. Newer additions to the Dutch licorice market include chocolate-covered soft-centered licorice balls, licorice-caramels, and licorice gumdrop/winegum hybrids.

Sources: Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek (''Statistics Netherlands"); NPO (''Dutch Public Broadcasting System"); EVMI (a Dutch food industry trade publication).