Sassafras Anecdote

“Well, to make Root Beer, you’d have to actually use Sassafras, but since those kids at UC Davis proved it is dangerous…”

“Uh, what? Kids at UC Davis?”

I was chatting with an acquaintance about Gruit, Ginger, and Root Beers, and she threw this into the conversation.

According to her, a group of grad students at UC Davis were bored with their research projects and decided to use the facilities to research the potentially hazardous nature of several flavorings commonly used in soft drinks, because according to her, the students thought the FDA never really researched food additives. Sticking it to the man, using grant money and facilities to do research they thought would benefit humanity.

They picked 5 flavorings, one of which was Sassafras Oil, and dosed up a bunch of their lab rats with them.

Of the 5, the only strong correlation they got was with the Sassafras.

Now I’m going to have to confirm this!

Sassafras, Continued

When talking about Sassafras, one of the seeming best pieces I found was from a home brewing forum.

Sassafras is Not Nearly as Dangerous as You Would Think, rriterson, 2010

This page contains the following:

“Let’s say that I drink 1 of my own rootbeers per day. In order to have a 50% chance of cancer, I’d have to have 3.85g of safrole per root beer. Since my batches are 5 gallons (~50 beers), that would mean I’d have to get 192.5g of safrole out of the sassafras I seep. I start with 16oz (1lb) of sassafras root. Well, 1lb is actually only 453g. 192.5g/453g is 42%.”

So this guy is using about 90g of Sassafras per gallon of Root Beer and feels it is a relatively safe amount, if he is getting a (very generous) 42% yield of Sassafras Oil per gram of sassafras root.

Old recipes call for 8-10 drops of Sassafras Oil per 5 gallon batch. I don’t know what the conversion is between Sassafras Oil drops and grams, but some things I’ve found indicate between 40-90 drops per gram for liquids. Castor Oil is said to be around 44 drops per gram. If Sassafras Oil is similar in weight, by rmitterson’s math, you would need to be using basically 3.85 times 44, or 169 drops of Sassafras Oil, per glass of Root Beer for a “50% chance of cancer”.

When I weighed out the amounts of herbs and barks in my Root Beer recipe, I found I was using about 4-6 grams of dried Sassafras Root Bark per gallon.

A pound of Sassafras sounds like a lot, but the yield of sassafras oil from my 4-6g of dried Sassafras Root per gallon, (most things I’ve read indicate the yield of Sassafras Oil from Sassafras Root Bark is 6-9% by weight when steam distilled,) isn’t going to be anywhere near significant in a simple heat infusion in water. Sassafras Oil isn’t even soluble in Water (Alcohol is another matter)!

So, mostly, I have to say I don’t feel that worried about Sassafras in my Root Beer recipe, at least compared to other potentially cancer risk elements in my life history or current environment.

Gram-i-Fied Root Beer

Root Beer Brewing.

Root Beer Brewing.

Aside from the Spruce Oil, I really liked that last Root Beer recipe, and I’ve been meaning to turn it into a weight recipe instead of a volume recipe anyway. Some of the ingredients are so light, it’s kind of impossible to weigh them in the amounts I am using with the scale I have, but here you go:

Root Beer, by weight

16oz Water

ROOTS:
20g Fresh Ginger Root, sliced and smashed
3g Sassafras Bark of Root*
3g Sarsaparilla Root
2g Vanilla Bean, split and scraped
2g Grains of Paradise, crushed
1g Star Anise
1g Spikenard
1g Wintergreen
1g Ginger Root, dried
1g Roasted Dandelion Root
1g Licorice Root
1g Honey Roasted Licorice Root
1g Star Anise, whole
6 Juniper Berries, crushed
1/4 tsp Gentian Root

HERBS:
1/2 tsp Horehound
1 generous pinch Cascade Hops
1/2 tsp Yerba Mate

200g Washed Raw Sugar
3 Tablespoons Wildflower Honey
1 Tablespoon Molasses
1 drop Wintergreen Oil

METHOD: Bring 2 Cups of Water to a boil. Add Roots, cover and simmer for 20 mins. Turn off heat and add herbs. Cover and steep for another 20 mins. Strain out solids. Stir in Molasses, Honey, and Washed Raw Sugar. Add Wintergreen Oil. Cool, and keep refrigerated. Makes a 3 cups of Syrup. To serve, mix syrup to taste with soda water (I usually go 1 part syrup to 3-4 parts soda water) or carbonate with yeast (mixing 1 part syrup to 3 parts water).

*Note, Sassafras Oil has been shown to cause liver cancer in laboratory rats and so Sassafras has been forbidden for use in food or beverage products by the FDA. Sassafras Oil is also a precursor chemical to MDMA, aka Ecstasy, so the TTB recommends that vendors keep a close eye on any significant sales. Use at your own risk.

Sassafras

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

“Clinical Summary:
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.

“Food Sources:
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://potency.berkeley.edu/chempages/SAFROLE.html

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.”

What is Root Beer?

First let’s tackle the roots of modern, commercial root beer.

I’m still investigating its historic ancestors.

Modern, commericial root beer began with Charles E. Hires.

He was a pharmacist who lived in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area.

He started selling a flavored mix around 1870. He initially called it Hires Herb Tea, but soon changed the name to Hires Root Beer. It was a dry powder which came with instructions to mix it with water, and sugar, to produce a carbonated beverage. Soon after, he switched the product to a liquid concentrate instead of a powder.

He made a big splash with his beverage at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, as a temperance alternative to more alcoholic beers.

Around 1890, he started selling a bottled, carbonated, pre-made version, and the rest, as they say, is history. Even with some Root Beer competition from A&W in California and Barq’s in Louisiana, Hires Root Beer became one of the biggest selling soft drinks in the United States for most of the 20th Century. It remained the king of soft drinks, until Coca-Cola unseated it with its marketing push in the 60s and 70s.

Here’s a lovely pamphlet from around 1892 made available in its entirety thanks to the University of Iowa: Hires Root Beer

Hires Root Beer

Hires Root Beer

And here’s a list of some of the ingredients Charles Hires claims were in his root beer circa 1920:

Birch Bark – United States, New England
Chirreta – India
Dog Grass – Germany
Ginger – Africa
Ginger – China
Ginger – Jamaica
Hires special plant
Hops – United States, Northwest
Juniper Berries – Italy
Licorice – Spain
Licorice – Russia
Sarsaparilla – Honduras
Sugar – Cuba
Vanilla – Mexico
Wintergreen – United States, North Carolina
Yerba Mate, Brazil

Funny, Yerba Mate! And Hops!

Most people assume that the “Hires Special Plant” in this list was Sassafras.

Dog-Grass may be Couch-Grass, (Agropyrum repens), whose, “roots have a sweet taste, somewhat resembling liquorice,” and were used medicinally.

Chiretta (Swertia chirata) appears to be a Gentian-like plant which is, “used a great deal in India as it has two valuable bitter tonic principles.”

The next big change in Root Beer came in the 1960 when it was determined that the safrole in Sassafras could be linked to cancer in rats. Sassafras was banned from food products and all commercial root beers had to be reformulated with a different balance of flavors. Primarily, Wintergreen came much more to the fore in modern Root Beer.

As an afterward, Hires Root Beer ended up in the hands of the people at the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Unfortunately, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group already had a Root Beer, A&W, and have gradually phased Hires out in most markets. It seems, they mostly bought it for the name. It is now very difficult to find Hires Root Beer, except by special order from some Internet marketers and (apparently) those olde tyme, fun loving people at Walmart.

Russell’s Sassafras Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 3

Root Beer

Root Beer

The Ice Cream Bar RUSSELL’S SASSAFRAS ROOT BEER

“Our cold-brewed sassafras based elixir made with 11 herbs and spices.”

Well, this is certainly the most interesting Root Beer, so far.

It has a medicinal nose, almost like the smells I associate with Mezcal or Batavia Arrack. When tasted, that it there, but it seems a bit like more of a green flavor.

None of the spices are overdone here, nor is the sweetness. The flavors are well integrated.

On the other hand, interesting though it is, I don’t know if I would go out of my way to try this Root Beer again.

I like the inspiration and inventiveness, but not quite sold on the taste.

It does inspire me to want to try and make Root Beer myself…