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What Is Salt Licorice?

Dan Harkins
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Little middle ground exists between those who love and those who abhor black licorice. A solid step beyond this distinctively bittersweet candy is salt licorice, or salmiak. Favored in Northern European countries, this so-called treat combines ordinary licorice root extract, starch or gums and sugar with ammonium chloride. The compound gives salmiak not just a salty, numbing kick prized for its expectorant qualities, but also a tangy aftertaste that sticks around long after the candy is gone.

Salt licorice began its rise to Nordic delicacy as a centuries-old ingredient in cough medicines. Since both licorice extract and ammonium chloride are longstanding ingredients in expectorants, pharmacists in Finland started turning the two into candied lozenges at the beginning of the 20th century. All that was needed was sugar and some form of binding compound like a plant starch or acacia gum. Everyday Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and others took to the flavor combination over time, even though saltiness and bitterness are not exactly candy-like characteristics. Eating them as hard candy became the norm, and some even started to add them as bitters to alcoholic drinks.

The sick or health-conscious used the candies to fight respiratory disorders or to keep them from taking root. Singers used them to clear the pipes before performances, and some salt licorice manufacturers used opera singers as spokespeople. Nidar Co.'s IFA® brand, founded at the beginning in 1930, is named after famous singer Ivar F. Andresen, and his picture and signature still appear on the wrapper in 2011. The largest market for these candies is still in Finland, with the average Finn consuming more than 2 lbs. (about 1 kg) of salt licorice every year. Norwegians are in second place, eating half that amount annually.

Some can stomach only so much ammonium chloride though, before salt licorice starts to taste more like medicine and less like candy. The average content of the chemical appears to hover around 6 percent, though some brands like Double Zout®, or Double Salt, have twice that amount or more for a palate- and sinus-cleansing vaporization. On the other end of the spectrum are salmiak candies like pantteri, Finnish for panther, which softens the blow by dipping the final candies in course sugar to ease the senses into the experience.

Several other varieties manage to endure, including the brand Lakrisal®. This candy is prepared with just ammonium chloride, sugar and licorice, leaving the tablets fragile and light-colored. An even brasher flavor is available as Tyrkisk peber, Danish for Turkish pepper, which leaps yet another culinary boundary.

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Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1002314 — On Oct 23, 2019

The Danes are totally crazy about salt licorice.

Besides the huge variety of this candy/pastille, it is in a powder to mix into foods (try it mixed into whipped cream) and is a favorite on their soft ice cream cones. The latest craze is chocolate licorice truffles and licorice chocolate covering nuts (almonds).

All Scandinavians eat lots of licorice!

By newsbird — On Jul 09, 2013

I just finished 2 bags of ENCO Dubbelzout (which has 9.8 percent salmiak in it) within 28 hours and I could eat more.

Real licorice root extract can make a person feel muscle weakness, but as far as I know from almost 65 years of eating salmiakki, I have never had any side effects. I wish this was made with splenda to avoid all that sugar which can cause problems in excess, but I have not found those found so far to be a fix for my salmiakki cravings.

By anon296865 — On Oct 13, 2012

@turquoise: I could easily eat one kilogram of salt licorice a week.

By literally45 — On Aug 06, 2012

@simrin-- Oh yes they do! Not just Finns and Norwegians, but the Swedes and Dutch are pretty crazy about salt licorice too. Actually they're crazy about licorice candy in general.

I took a tour around Europe a couple of years ago where I visited Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. And I saw people in all three countries eating salt licorice candies like no other. And it's not just consumed as candy, but also in alcoholic drinks and desserts too. I think the weirdest salt licorice food I had during my trip was salt licorice ice cream. It was definitely a very unique flavor.

I personally can't say I loved the salt licorice candies I tried and I tried many during the trip. But the salt licorice beer I had in the Netherlands was very good.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 06, 2012

@turquoise-- As far as I know, ammonium chloride doesn't have any adverse side effects. The only effect it might cause when you eat too many salmiak candies is nausea. But that's the case with most candies.

I do know that doctors recommend having salmiak in moderate amounts though. It's not because of the ammonium chloride but because of licorice. There is a something in licorice called "glycyrrhizin" which increases blood pressure when consumed too much. So it's not advisable for people with high blood pressure to binge on this stuff.

I personally doubt that Finns and Norwegians actually eat so much salmiak candy.

By turquoise — On Aug 05, 2012

I can't believe that something which started off as medication ended up becoming candy. And one kilogram of salt licorice a year sounds like a lot! Especially considering that it has ammonium chloride in it!

Isn't it dangerous to consume so much ammonium chloride? Won't Finns and Norwegians experience negative side effects in the long term from these candies?

I'm not sure if it's right to compare salt licorice with cough drops. But I personally don't enjoy cough drops and only use them when I'm sick. So I can't imagine eating a kilogram of cough drops a year.

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
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