A man died when his potassium levels dropped after eating excessive amounts of black licorice, CNN reported. The candy contains a sweetener called glycyrrhizic acid, which lowers potassium levels. Having balanced mineral levels in the body matters.
According to CNN, a candy lover recently overdosed on black licorice and suffered fatal consequences. “The man, a construction worker from Massachusetts, lost consciousness inside a fast-food restaurant and was taken to a hospital, where he died the next day,” the article said. “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 candy to licorice candy, which contained glycyrrhizic acid.
“Glycyrrhizic acid, or glycyrrhizin, a sweetening compound derived from licorice root, can cause a drop in potassium levels in the body, which in turn may cause high blood pressure, swelling, abnormal heart rhythms and even heart failure, according to the FDA.”
Among other things, potassium helps balance out our sodium intake. Keeping a healthy amount of each is important for regulation of the body.
Yin and Yang of Potassium and Sodium
In the United States, an overconsumption of sodium runs rampant. Salt, which is sodium chloride, can lead to high blood pressure if eaten too often.
“Along with this problem of sodium overconsumption is the underconsumption of its antagonist, or the mineral that acts as its counterbalance, which is potassium,” said Professor Roberta H. Anding, registered dietician and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietician at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. “Higher potassium intake helps to lower blood pressure by blunting the effects of sodium. Diets rich in potassium are also associated with a reduced risk of developing kidney stones, as well as the reduction of bone loss with age.”
Professor Anding said that the purposes of potassium and sodium, which are electrolytes as well as minerals, is that they regulate blood and other bodily fluids. They also “help nerves to talk to one another” and stimulate muscle activity, proper gland function, and heart activity.
Despite the details given about the construction worker who died from too little potassium, it’s worth looking at the other end of the spectrum—an overconsumption of potassium.
“Too much potassium, potassium excess, is called hyperkalemia, most often caused by abnormal kidney or renal functioning, resulting in ineffective elimination from the body,” Professor Anding said. “Say, for example, you have long-term kidney disease and you end up on dialysis. You lose the body’s ability to get rid of the potassium excess; the bottom line is you have abnormal kidney functioning, and you can’t eliminate the excess from your body.
“So unfortunately, for both of these electrolytes, the major route of excretion is going to be in the urine.”
Professor Anding said that excessive potassium intake causing hyperkalemia is rare, but can often happen due to salt substitutes. This is because if you eat a salt substitute, you aren’t taking in sodium anymore, so there’s nothing to balance out the potassium. Additionally, some salt substitutes already have potassium in them.
More than anything, striking the right balance of potassium and sodium matters. It could even save lives.
Professor Roberta H. Anding contributed to this article. Professor Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She received her bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and her master’s degree in Nutrition from Louisiana State University.