The most controversial aspect of brewing your own Root Beer is whether to use natural Sassafras Root Bark.
As I mentioned, some time in the 1960s or 1970s, it was determined that there is a link between a substance in Sassafras, Safrole, and Liver Cancer in rats.
Shortly thereafter, Sassafras was removed from the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list by the FDA and banned from use in food.
A lot of people play this down, Sassafras Root Bark tea is still pretty commonly drunk as an herbal beverage in the parts of the United States.
You’ll find quotes like this one from Wildman Steve Brill’s website:
“Note: You may have heard that sassafras has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it causes cancer. Huge quantities have given to rats over took periods of time give the rodents cancer because they change the molecule sassafrole into a cancer-causing one. Humans don’t do this, and no one has ever gotten sick from sassafras. Sassafras was banned because there are a lot of rats in the FDA!”
On one hand, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there has been no strong correlation discovered between liver cancer in humans and the moderate consumption of Sassafras Tea or Root Beer.
On the other hand, you may feel it is better to be safe than sorry. You only have one liver, after all.
There are Sassafras Root extracts available, and Root Beer Flavorings, which use Safrole free Sassafras Extract.
Other Root Beers, presumably, forgo Sassafras altogether and just pump up the other ingredients, generally the Wintergreen.
Interestingly, Sassafras Oil and Safrole are used in the illicit manufacture of MDMA, making Safrole a list I chemical under federal law.
I’ve also seen recent studies which point out that excessive Sassafras use may cause sweating and/or hot flashes. Amusing, since one of the traditional common names is “ague tree”, and it was taken to cause those exact effects.
I’m not a scientist or your Doctor, so I can’t pretend to tell you what to do, but it’s good to be informed and make your own choice.
Sassafras entry from “A Modern Herbal”, M. Greive, circa 1900:
“—Description—The name ‘Sassafras,’ applied by the Spanish botanist Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage. The tree stands from 20 to 40 feet high, with many slender branches, and smooth, orangebrown bark. The leaves are broadly oval, alternate, and 3 to 7 inches long. The flowers are small, and of an inconspicuous, greenishyellow colour. The roots are large and woody, their bark being soft and spongy, rough, and reddish or greyish-brown in colour. The living bark is nearly white, but exposure causes its immediate discoloration. The roots are imported in large, branched pieces, which may or may not be covered with bark, and often have attached to them a portion of the lower part of the trunk. The central market for all parts is Baltimore. The entire root is official in the British Pharmacopoeia, but only the more active bark in the United States, where wood and bark form separate articles of commerce. The bark without its corky layer is brittle, and the presence of small crystals cause its inner surface to glisten. Both bark and wood have a fragrant odour, and an aromatic, somewhat astringent taste.
“The tree, which has berries like those of cinnamon, appears to have been cultivated in England some centuries ago, for in 1633 Johnston wrote: ‘I have given the figure of a branch taken from a little sassafras tree which grew in the garden of Mr. Wilmot at Bon.’ Probably it was discovered by the Spaniards in Florida, for seventy years earlier there is mention of the reputation of its roots in Spain as a cure for syphilis, rheumatism, etc., though its efficacy has since then been much disputed.
“The fragrant oil distilled from the rootbark is extensively used in the manufacture of the coarser kinds of perfume, and for scenting the cheapest grades of soap. The oil used in perfumes is also extracted from the fruits. The wood and bark of the tree furnish a yellow dye. In Louisiana, the leaves are used as a condiment in sauces, and also for thickening soups; while the young shoots are used in Virginia for making a kind of beer. Mixed with milk and sugar, Sassafras Tea, under the name of ‘Saloop,’ could, until a few years ago, be bought at London streetcorners in the early mornings.
“Oil of Sassafras is chiefly used for flavouring purposes, particularly to conceal the flavour of opium when given to children. In the United States of America it is employed for flavouring effervescing drinks.
“—Medicinal Action and Uses—Aromatic, stimulant, diaphoretic, alterative. It is rarely given alone, but is often combined with guaiacum or sarsaparilla in chronic rheumatism, syphilis, and skin diseases.”
Some more modern information regardingSassafras from the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“Scientific Name: Sassafras albidum
“Common Name: Ague tree, saxifrax, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling-stick
Derived primarily from the roots of the tree. There are no clinical data to support the use of sassafras, which contains safrole, a volatile oil that was shown to be carcinogenic in animal models. Diaphoresis, hot flashes, and sedation have been reported following administration of small doses.
Excessive doses can cause hallucinations, hypertension, and tachycardia.
Once used as flavoring agent in root beer and candies. Its use as food additive is now prohibited by the FDA due to its carcinogenic effect.”
Sassafras is Not Nearly as Dangerous as You Would Think, rriterson, 2010
“First, let me state that I believe i am qualified to offer an opinion because I am a practicing biochemist and can more easily find and perhaps understand the data out there. However, I am not an expert on safrole or safrole metabolism, so do not take my word as gospel. I encourage you to look at the data and decide for yourself.
“I think the safrole health hazards have been significantly overblown. Take a look at these two sources (one a secondary source, the other primary):
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T6P-3X9415Y-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view =c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_user id=10&md5=8ec1ea8630ab130def74241535d2fc11#sec2.1
“Let’s not go too far and say that safrole doesn’t cause cancer. It does at the right dose But I think that dose is waaaay higher than you’re likely to get. Pollution in the air, chemicals in your kitchen cleaning products, etc, will probably give you cancer first.
“So, I am not at all afraid to use raw sassafras in my root beers, and I don’t think you should be either.
“What do I think the real reason for why the FDA was so quick to act against Safrole? It’s one easy chemical reaction away from MDMA, the banned drug most of us know as ecstasy. By eliminating the food needs for sassafras, the industrial production sources all disappeared, making it very hard for an illegal drug house to get enough sassafras to make MDMA.
“I’m interested to hear other opinions out there, and especially interested in reading any other sources people can find.”