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Danger in the Food Around Us

You probably know that certain substances like coffee and sugar can be harmful to our bodies if we have too much of it. But there are other foods that have been traditionally known to be healthy, that we eat out of habit, that we don’t know the danger of and should be cautious about when consuming. Below we'll briefly explain the harms of two examples, licorice and betel nut.


Licorice, a popular natural sweetener that has a long history of use and is now found in candies, drinks, and some herbal medicines, can be dangerous to our bodies if it is overly consumed. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it can cause hypokalemia (low potassium), which can then lead to muscle weakness, arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm), hypertension (high blood pressure), and even congestive heart failure in severe cases. Potassium is essential for the body because it allows nutrients to be absorbed by cells and for nerves to send and receive signals.

For more information on hypokalemia, please visit this link.

As an article published in PMC explains, hypokalemia is caused by eating too much licorice because the key chemical in licorice is Glycyrrhizin. After an oral consumption of licorice, the Glycyrrhizin will hydrolyze into glycyrrhetic acid and glycyrrhizic acid. These will inhibit the enzymes 11-ß-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase and 5-ß reductase which then activates a high amount of the ​​mineralocorticoid receptor (MR). Licorice itself is also able to directly bind to MR. This receptor is known for this purpose in regulating blood pressure and controlling body fluid around the heart area. When an abnormally high amount of MR is activated, this will lead to sodium absorption and potassium loss in the kidney, because it will bind to more aldosterone and cortisol. Below is a diagram illustrating this process.

Image is courtesy of NCBI.

Knowing this, it is important to also acknowledge the benefits of licorice, as well as its position as a herbal drug from the ancient times. Other than it being a popular sweetener, licorice in its various forms has been recorded to be used in traditional Chinese and Greek medicine to treat peptic ulcers, sore throat, cough, heartburn, acid reflux, acne, and Addison’s Disease, according to Healthline.

The good news is, although there may be various health risks associated with the overconsumption of licorice, these effects are not lasting and permanent. The Food and Drug Administration explains that when a person stops eating licorice, the side effects will stop. There have been many experiments conducted to study the safe amount of intake of licorice, and results varied. For most healthy adults, some studies found consuming around 5 g of licorice everyday is a safe amount, while others found up to 217 mg of oral glycyrrhizic intake per day to be safe. For references, some studies found females to be slightly more sensitive to males. The general guideline that the Food and Drug Administration provides is not to eat too much at one time, and to stop eating when irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness is observed.

Betel Nut

Betel nut, the seed of the Areca Palm from Southeast Asia, is a popular food that is mainly chewed by locals but also consumed by up to 600 million people worldwide, for its supposed ability to boost energy and make people feel more awake. According to Healthline, it has also been believed to have healing powers against various digestive problems, inflammatory problems, cardiovascular problems, eye disorders, and even cancer. Ironically, it has been proved to cause cancer in the mouth, along with risk of causing oral-dental problems from chewing. In the long run, chewing betel nuts may cause gum irritation, tooth staining, tooth decay, and also oral submucous fibrosis. Studies show that long term use of betel nut likely also leads to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and addiction.

Image is courtesy of China Daily.

Oral submucous fibrosis is a chronic disease that leads to cancer in up to 15% of all cases. Other symptoms include dry mouth, burning sensation in the mouth, taste disorders, stiffness and restricted movement in the mouth and tongue, and eventually may lead to loss of jaw movement. With loss of jaw movement, both facial expressions and chewing become limited. It is caused by an excess of collagen fiber in the mouth area, since collagen fiber is the extracellular protein that helps bring strength to tissues. It is found in skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones. As explained by an article in PMC, Betel nut is the criminal of depositing excess collagen fibers and disturbing the homeostasis of the extracellular matrix because it contains the chemicals arecoline, arecaidine, guvacine, and guvacoline, which are alkaloids that increase the synthesis of collagen in the fibroblast.

Image is courtesy of MINERVA Research Labs.

To make it even worse, many people also consume betel nuts along with slaked lime and tobacco in a snack called betel quid, notes BBC News. Slaked lime is calcium hydroxide, when it meets the moisture in a person’s mouth, it can cause irritation and tiny bruns, which allow the harmful substances of betel to enter the body.

Please search up some images of the consequences of chewing betel nuts, it’s quite shocking.

Betel nuts are no longer officially considered safe, however many people still have the habit of chewing since it is rooted in their cultures. The World Health Organization classifies betel nut as a carcinogen, which are substances that can cause the development of cancer. Betel nut is illegal in Australia and New Zealand—owning, consuming, or selling betel nut is against the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. In China, the municipality of Xiamen banned the production, promotion and consumption of betel nuts in 1996. The province of Hunan banned the advertising of betel nuts in 2019, as Sixth Tone reports. The country of China has classified betel nuts as a drug instead of a food starting from 2020, and officially banned the advertisement of betel nuts television and other public shows in the September of 2021. Although the tradition and habit of chewing betel nuts are hard to leave behind, especially since betel nuts are also so addictive, it’s time to face the disadvantages of chewing betel nut.

Article Author: Ivy Sun

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Sherilyn Wen