Written for publication in the Caid Brewers Guild's Newsletter: In Vino Veritas
During the discussion it became clear I didn't have full command of the data I was attempting to communicate and I promised to do some research and report back to the Guild, this article is that report.
The sassafras trees under discussion is Sassafras albidum which is native to the Eastern United States. The leaves are used dried and ground into "filè" powder which is used Creol cooking. Filè powder is not cooked, but is stirred in immediately before serving, providing aroma, taste and thickening the dish. The inner bark of the root is dried and provides the sassafras bark that brewers, herbologists, and herbcrafters are familiar with.
While we think of sassafras root bark as THE ingredient of root beer, it is so named because the original recipes contain several roots. Common ingredients in commercial root beers include wintergreen, vanilla, anise, cinnamon, lemon oil, orange oil, and cloves.
One article quotes Phil Sprovieri, vice president of Flavorchem, a flavor-extract company in Downers Grove, Ill. as saying: "There's no definition of what a root beer should be. It's almost like making a fruit punch. You can go spicy or you can make it smooth. Additives such as ginger add a little mystery to the potpourri of ingredients."
In the 1960s, laboratory tests determined that safrole, the major component of the oil of the sassafras root bark, was toxic to the liver and could cause cancer in rats and mice. In 1976 the U.S. Food and Drug Association banned the usage of sassafras containing safrole in products for internal consumption.
Commercial root beer brewers and "extract" makers scrambled to reformulate their recipes, either balancing out the missing sassafras with other roots or synthetic flavors or by extracting the safrole from the sassafras root bark oil.
Although you will find sassafras oil, tincture, and root bark available for sale, they are "legally" intended for external use only, where it is apparently effective against rheumatism, acne, poison ivy and oak, hair problems, and perspiration -- to name only a few.
Of course banning consumption of sassafras and stopping it are two different things. Sassafras has been used as a flavoring and herbal remedy for ages. The Serenity Spas website I cite below has a long list of medicinal uses for sassafras, many of which appear to necessitate internal application. The page tells you to use the bark and root, but notes that the oil is toxic and should never be taken internally, apparently forgetting that the oil is derived from the root bark.
So we come to the question Kurt and I were debating. Is it a health hazard to brew and drink root beer made from sassafras bark?
The FDA believes the answer is yes. It is toxic to the liver and has the potential to cause cancer in humans. However, the question is always, "how much do I have to consume before I've consumed an equivalent amount as the rats?"
The best website on the list below is Stout Billy's Information Library: Root Beer Concentrate. In that article Steve Mercer estimates he (as a 240 pound man) would have to "drink 24.925 gallons of root beer [every day] to reach oral toxicity". At which time there would be a 50% chance he would develop cancer, however he suggests other, anti-social, problems would set in before he reached that level of consumption! Having said that, he acknowledges there might be other toxic effects that contributed to the FDA's banning the substance.
So in a world of decreasing healthy options and increasing, artificial substitutes, as always the choice is yours: Sassafras or not to Sassafras, that is still the question!
New link (11/28/06) http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Sass_alb.html
New link (11/6/06) http://healthlink.uhseast.com/library/healthguide/en-us/Cam/topic.asp?hwid=hn-3661007
New link (11/6/06) http://www.stoutbillys.com/stout/infonsf/Library/0FF30A5F.htm
New link (11/6/06) http://www.interestingideas.com/ii/rb.htm