Early 20th-century root beer used to be made from, among other things, sassafras root. Sassafras albidum, native to all states east of the Mississippi River, comes from the Laurel family, which also includes bay, camphor, and cinnamon. Native Americans used sassafras leaves to make tea, and the bark as a cooking spice. But it was the drink flavored with oil from the roots—thought to cure syphilis—that was especially popular with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. (It became the New World’s second most popular export after tobacco.)
Today, however, most commercial root beer recipes have parted ways with sassafras. That’s because the root bark contains safrole, a volatile oil that the FDA banned as a potential carcinogen in the 1960s. According to Foster S. Tyler’s Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies, “It has been estimated that one cup of strong sassafras [root] tea could contain as much as 200 mg of safrole, more than four times the minimal amount believed hazardous to humans if consumed on a regular basis.” More recent studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, however, found that it took a dose of 2,350 mg to reach a “toxic endpoint” (that is, where 50 percent of the animals died) in mice, which puts safrole in the “slightly toxic” category. Since there have been no human studies, nobody really knows what levels might be dangerous to people.
If the safrole hasn’t been removed, it can be legally sold only as a topical skin wash or as “aromatic potpourri.”
Root beers that list sassafras as an ingredient today, such as those made by Hansen’s Natural Soda or Thomas Kemper, use a safrole-free extract. Some purists swear this fiddling has ruined the taste, but Jack Mitchell, chef and proprietor of Sassafras restaurant in Santa Rosa, California, says, “I can almost guarantee that you cannot tell a difference.” Besides, Mitchell says, today’s root beers go heavy on the vanilla and honey, which is what the modern palate is attuned to.
It’s still possible to find sassafras root bark being sold as a tea or as a folk remedy for lice, skin inflammations, and arthritis. If the safrole hasn’t been removed, it can be legally sold only as a topical skin wash or as “aromatic potpourri.” Traditionalists, however, think that safrole’s health benefits outweigh its dangers; stores that continue to sell sassafras with safrole, such as the Penn Herb Co. Ltd., list its traditional uses but include the warning, “Item considered unsafe as a food by the FDA.” Since these items are sold as dietary supplements, not as food, they’re not regulated by the FDA.
Powdered sassafras leaves are still sold as file, a thickening spice for gumbo, and are categorized as “generally recognized as safe,” according to FDA spokesman Mike Herndon, because they don’t contain a significant amount of safrole.
Yet another interesting sassafras discovery: Safrole is the main ingredient in the production of the designer drug ecstasy. The oil’s chemical structure is just one molecule of ammonia away from being an amphetamine. It’s currently categorized as a List 1 chemical under the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act, which means that anyone manufacturing it must be registered with the DEA, and the purchase of it in large quantities will lead to a knock on your door. Of course, if the agent turns out to be nice, you could always take him for a root beer float.