Why Do Scandinavians Like Licorice?

Scandinavian licorice is not the mildly flavored candy people elsewhere may be familiar with. It is furiously potent and aggressively salted and, at once, sweet, sour, and perhaps spicy.

Considering that most licorice is grown in regions far from Scandinavia, what explains the Scandinavians’ extraordinary zeal for such odd flavors?

Scandinavians like licorice because it aligns well with their individual and cultural food memories.

The intense flavors of Scandinavian licorice align well with culinary preferences in the region, such as a predilection for salty-sweet foods.

It is also associated with intimate childhood memories.

This article looks into possible explanations for the unusual Scandinavian fondness for licorice.

And since individual and cultural tastes are highly subjective, the explanations are partial at best but fascinating nonetheless. 

Also, see Why Are So Many Scandinavians Introverted? to learn more.

Exploring Scandinavians’ Fascination With Licorice

A handful of countries in the northern fringes of Europe consume significantly high amounts of licorice. [1]

Besides the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the list also includes Iceland, Finland, northern Germany, and the Netherlands, with the Netherlands being the largest licorice consumer in the world. [2] 

The popularity of licorice in Scandinavia extends to a broader region within its immediate northern European neighborhood.

Licorice candy goes by different names in each of the three Scandinavian countries:

  • Denmark – lakrids 
  • Sweden – lakrits
  • Norway – lakris [3]

Besides candies, licorice is a popular flavoring in everything from liquor to ice cream across these regions.

Children and adults consume it, and extensive selections of licorice-based products are usually available in supermarkets and specialized shops.

Given the adjacency of the consuming areas, it is curious that none grow a licorice crop.

Most of the licorice in the world comes from India, China, and West Asia, and Italy is the only major European producer. [4]

Considering that Scandinavians don’t produce licorice but are among its most prolific consumers globally, what explains such high demand?

Scandinavians Attribute a Range of Health Benefits to Licorice 

Licorice has been used since ancient times in Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine because of its perceived anti-inflammatory properties

Classical Greek and Indian sources claim that licorice root improves respiratory and digestive health.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that it was believed to be good for the voice and to release phlegm – hence the popularity of licorice lozenges in many parts of the world even today.

The medicinal properties of Licorice have long been appreciated in Scandinavia and neighboring countries.

The heavily salted Finnish version of licorice candies – known as salmiakki – originated as a cough syrup. Its aggressive saltiness comes from ammonium chloride, which is added to improve its quality as an expectorant.

Many Scandinavians also associate licorice with traditional home remedy qualities.

They believe it raises blood pressure in extremely cold environments and recommend it for everything from combatting ulcers to reducing weight. [5] 

Some even believe it may possess compounds that help combat more serious viral illnesses like SARS. [6] 

Licorice Aligns With Scandinavian Culinary Traditions

The love Scandinavians have for Licorice can also be attributed to historical Scandinavian culinary traditions.

According to this argument, licorice often comes in strong flavors that share similarities with some favorite traditional foods across the region.

The far northern location of countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden causes long, harsh winters.

These countries also have limited arable land due to a combination of geography and climate, which means there’s a narrower selection of fresh ingredients to work with in the kitchen. 

Historically, Scandinavians also had less access to red meat and depended more on fish, which spoils faster, resulting in a long-standing need to preserve food

Culinary techniques, such as drying, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and salting, have a long history in the Scandinavian region. [7]

Fish is often dried, salted, or fermented, and vegetables are pickled in large volumes. [8] These specifically-Scandinavian culinary traditions go back centuries, to the Viking Age or earlier. 

Many of these techniques involve aggressive seasoning with salt.

Additionally, the habitual use of sugar, vinegar, and other robust food processing agents means many Scandinavians are accustomed to a mix of salty-sour and sweet tastes from childhood. 

Not so coincidentally, these tastes dovetail neatly with the flavors of Scandinavian licorice.

Licorice May Just Be an Acquired Taste That Scandinavians Develop From Childhood 

Ultimately, perhaps, strongly-flavored Scandinavian licorice is just an acquired taste. 

The currently accepted theory is that the human preference for sweet foods is a biologically hardwired reaction to calorie-rich foods in calorie-scarce environments from a time much earlier in our evolutionary process. 

So most humans like sweet foods because, in the natural world, they are richer in calories than bitter foods.

Over thousands of generations, these preferences have gotten deeply entrenched. 

Of course, individual preferences can vary widely. Early exposure may be a key variable in determining how taste works.

As Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says, “Children are living in different sensory worlds than adults.”  [9]

Mennella’s research shows a genetic component to taste. But while a parent’s genes can influence their child’s tastes, it does not wholly determine it.

A child’s preferences are more malleable at a young age, but as they grow, they get more fixed. 

In this sense, a predilection for licorice is no more inexplicable than a fondness for blue cheese, spinach, or Vegemite. 

Licorice Has Nostalgic Associations Among Scandinavians

Most Scandinavians are used to eating licorice from a young age. It is part of their most intimate memories, from early childhood to schoolgoing days.

Thus, the intense and unique flavors of Scandinavian licorice remain deeply entrenched in their memories. 

Inevitably, like adults everywhere, they have a soft spot for the favorite candies of their youth. 

Many Scandinavians write about carrying licorice when they travel abroad or missing it when they run out.

Such accounts suggest that licorice has become entrenched into their everyday life to the degree that its absence makes them uncomfortable. 

If it’s any comfort, plenty of Scandinavians cannot explain the phenomenon. They like licorice, but they don’t know why. [10]

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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