Featured Poison

A Scientist Stole my Root Beer

I’m not ashamed to say that I like root beer. There’s something about the herbal and woodsy flavors that I enjoy. It’s refreshing, but also a time machine. A sip of root beer brings me back to my childhood and makes me feel like a little kid again. More so than any other drink, it is classic Americana. And if I ever have the option of drinking root beer, I’ll choose it over any another soda. But as much as I love root beer, there’s one thing that really grinds my gears, gets my goat, and burns my bacon: A scientist stole my root beer.

Root beers by Justin Brower

Root beers by Justin Brower

Root beer has, in some way, shape, or form, been around for centuries. People undoubtedly mixed roots, berries, and herbs together in water to create teas and elixirs, either to make polluted water more palatable or as some sort of remedy. Throw in some sugar to make it go down easier and a little local yeast from, well, everywhere, and voila, you’ve got fermentation and beer. These types of drinks were popular in colonial America, and called “small beers” because of their low alcohol content, around 2%.

But the man that gets the glory for “inventing” root beer is Charles Hires, a pharmacist with an entrepreneurial spirit. Legend has it he was on his honeymoon and came across a tea that he particularly liked. Upon his return home he replicated the recipe and sold it as a “cure-all” elixir, which were all the rage at the time. His concoction was originally called root tea, but he renamed it root beer shortly before he displayed it at the 1876 Centennial Exposition*, supposedly to make it more appealing to the working class. Hey, it works for me. His genius came in not just selling root beer, but marketing it, and selling kits so that people could brew their own at home. Then in 1884 he made a liquid concentrate, a.k.a. syrup, so that people could skip the brewing process and “just add water.” This is still how we deliver and sell root beer and other sodas today.

* The 1876 Centennial Exposition is also famous for giving us Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Remington’s typewriter, Heinz ketchup, and Kudzu, the invasive vine and scourge of the South.

So what’s the “root” in root beer? That would be the roots, and bark, of the Sassafras tree, and used in making America’s iconic root beer all the way up to 1960. Native to the Eastern United States, Sassafras albidum is a deciduous tree of medium height (~30 feet) that is often grown for its ornamental appearance and fragrance. In the fall the leaves turn spectacular shades of red and orange. In the woodsy wild, Sassafras trees are easy to identify because the leaves are shaped like mittens. Seriously. You’ve got a left and right handed mitten, and a double mitten, like for people with two thumbs on each hand. Just look at the photo, it’s easier that way.

Sassafras albidum leaves by Justin Brower

Sassafras albidum leaves by Justin Brower

The fragrance of Sassafras comes from essential oils present in the roots and bark of the tree. Notable chemicals include aromatic compounds like α-pinene (pine scented, duh) and camphor (Vicks VapoRub) as well as possible hallucinogens thujone and myristicin – which you’ve read about here, of course. But the chemical getting all the glory, or the blame, is safrole – and if you remember your myristicin, you’d see that they look a lot alike.

Safrole is the primary constituent of Sassafras oil, but when reading about safrole I see a lot of bad math, which I think propagates itself into other write-ups – without references of course. But here’s what I came up with, which is the absolute best case scenario for determining safrole concentration in Sassafras root, but also not an indicator of what you’d find in a steeped tea. I’ll explain.

Safrole

Safrole

From 150 grams of ground Sassafras root a total of 0.68 grams (680 milligrams) of safrole was extracted using 3 liters of “petrol”, a low boiling mixture of hydrocarbons that dissolves non-polar (read: greasy) things, like safrole, giving a total percent yield of 0.4% safrole (1). And that’s coming from two sets of extracts: one that yields 0.44 grams of oil that is 90% safrole and one which is 4.87 grams of oil but only 6% safrole. What I often read is along the lines of: Sassafras contains ~3% essential oil of which 90% is safrole. It’s true that there is ~3% essential oil, but only one extract in this case is 90% safrole. If you do the math, you’d calculate that safrole makes up 2.8% of the total extracted oil. So right off the bat, people estimate safrole almost 10-times too high.

Enough math. The point I really want to make is that this is a best case scenario and not representative of a real world scenario. First, the above experiment is using ground Sassafras. And when I say ground I mean like coffee grounds. Second, they are extracting out safrole (and other oils) using a non-polar solvent. They have to, because safrole is insoluble in water. It is literally like oil in water. I don’t know how you make your Sassafras tea, but most people don’t have the ability to grind wood into a powder and they sure as hell aren’t mixing it with gasoline. So the amount of safrole extracted from small chunks of root in hot water? I don’t know, but I can guarantee you it’s much, much less than 0.4%, and likely more along the lines of 0.04%.

I’m actually getting a bit worked up. Can you tell? So why my fixation on safrole? Because some jackass thought it would be a good idea to feed it to rats and see what happens. And if your agenda is to show that safrole is toxic, feed them huge amounts. Like 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight every day for 2 months (2). To obtain this much safrole naturally, the rat would have to eat it’s body weight in sassafras root every day. What happened? They established an LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) in rats of 1950 mg/kg. They also saw liver damage and tumor formation, at high doses, due to safrole-DNA adducts attributed to a metabolite found in rats, 1′-hydroxysafrole (3).

Sassafras albidum leaf by Justin Brower

Sassafras albidum leaf by Justin Brower

Liver damage and cancer is bad. Period. But obviously I’ve got some issues, at least that’s what everyone tells me. I hate the “scale-up game” between rats and humans. It just doesn’t work. Rats and humans aren’t the same, and we don’t metabolize things the same. With that said, to just give you an idea of the magnitude we’re talking about, if I wanted to consume 0.5 grams/kg of safrole, and assuming I can extract out 0.04% safrole from Sassafras root chunks in water, I’d need to boil up 170 pounds of sassafras root…in about 400 gallons of water. If I had to dig up 170 pounds of Sassafras root every day for 2 months I’d die from exhaustion long before the cancer got me. Now obviously you don’t want liver damage. Or cancer. I don’t even want an LD1, let alone an LD50. But hopefully you can see how ridiculous this is. But the best part is that hepatocarcinogenic metabolite, 1′-hydroxysafrole. Remember that one, the one that messes with the DNA? Well, it’s not even found in humans (4). Really? Seriously.

So we’re left with a chemical that’s insoluble in water, in already low concentrations, causes damage in rats at obscenely high amounts via a metabolite not even found in man. What’s the U.S. government to do? Ban it of course. In 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the addition of safrole in foods. Never mind that safrole is present in every day foods like cinnamon and basil. This bone-headed decision forced root beer brewers to abandon Sassafras roots and extracted oils, and instead turn toward other additives to make up for the flavor loss.

I know this is getting long, but there are two conspiracy theories out there regarding why the FDA banned safrole, and you know I love me some conspiracy theories:

  1. Cola companies, particularly Coca-Cola, was concerned that root beer was cutting into their sales and profit margins, and coerced the FDA into banning safrole to put the hurt on the brewers. This I could buy into, because Coca-Cola has butted heads with the FDA before. Around 1910 the FDA wanted Coca-Cola to stop adding caffeine to their products, and even sued them. Coca-Cola said “no”, flipped them the bird, and went about their merry way. So there is some history of big business having power over government.
  2. Safrole is a building block in the synthesis of MDMA, also known world wide as Ecstasy. In two easy steps (or less if you’re clever), you can synthesize a whole range of MDMA and related designer stimulant drugs. This has the negative effect of massive deforestation in Asian countries of safrole containing trees, with a large portion of it being funneled towards illegal MDMA manufacturing in China and the U.S. The problem with this theory though is that although MDMA has been known since the early 1900’s, and tested in humans in the 50’s, it wasn’t used as a recreational drug until the late Alexander Shulgin’s lab synthesized and  tried it out in the early 80’s. Then in 1985 the DEA scheduled MDMA as a schedule-I drug. So the timing is a bit off for the FDA to become involved in the MDMA scene.

Throw in the fact that I can’t find any cases of people becoming ill, let alone developing cancer from drinking root beer or tea made from Sassafras root, despite being used for centuries, makes me think there were either some shenanigans going on at the FDA or some really bad science. I vote for bad science . . . with a dash of conspiracy.

So what does “real” root beer taste like? I have no idea…some scientist stole it from me.

Abita root beer by Justin Brower

Abita root beer by Justin Brower

*** This article was reprinted, and available in print and online, in Hacker Monthly. If you like articles and news about technology, computing, startups, and science, you should check it out. ***

References:

1. Sethi, Manohar L., Rao G. Subba, B.k. Chowdhury, J.f. Morton, and Govind J. Kapadia. “Identification of Volatile Constituents of Sassafras Albidum Root Oil.” Phytochemistry 15.11 (1976): 1773-775.
2. Hagan, Ernest C., Paul M. Jenner, Wm.i. Jones, O.garth Fitzhugh, Eleanor L. Long, J.g. Brouwer, and Willis K. Webb. “Toxic Properties of Compounds Related to Safrole.” Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 7.1 (1965): 18-24.
3. Liu, T.y, C.c Chen, C.l Chen, and C.w Chi. “Safrole-induced Oxidative Damage in the Liver of Sprague–Dawley Rats.” Food and Chemical Toxicology 37.7 (1999): 697-702.
4. Benedetti, M., A. Malnoe, and A. Broillet. “Absorption, Metabolism and Excretion of Safrole in the Rat and Man.” Toxicology 7.1 (1977): 69-83.

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35 thoughts on “A Scientist Stole my Root Beer

  1. You can buy sassafras root bark on Amazon.

    When I was a kid, the old-timers still made and consumed sassafras tea in the spring. They would generally boil the entire root, rather than using just the root bark.

    I remember it being pretty good. Definitely root beer-like, though not as complex in flavor as commercial root beer, which no doubt has other flavoring agents in it in addition to the sassafras (or whatever they use in place of it today).

    • I homebrew beer, so I’ll probably try my hand at root beer at some point. Maybe soon?

      Root beers are so different from one another. The “Tommyknockers” brand shown in the lineup pic has maple syrup in it…not my cup o’ tea.

      Thanks for the input and for reading!

      • Definitely worth trying your hand at!

        We use this recipe — http://wellnessmama.com/11392/homemade-root-beer/ — though it’s a bit of an art. It’s fantastic, though, and makes the best root beer float, ever (and I’m picky about root beers). I’ve also happened across blogs of people who do it by creating the syrup then adding a tablespoon to carbonated water, though I haven’t tried that method.

        • That sounds interesting! I’m not on the ‘probiotic’ kick, but if you’re endorsing it, it’s worth a shot! Thanks for reading and the tip.

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  3. Love this blog. Loved this entry. About a decade ago, my brother-in-law was able to get some sassafras root from some hippy store and we brewed it, sweetened it and pressurized it with CO2 from a canister (would be much easier these days with something like soda stream). Tasted really nice. I’d say and earthier, more complex flavor than A&W. Worth it? Just for the experience, I’d say yes, but we’ve not done it since as it was a bit of a hassle. Also, I’d blame the bureaucrats and not the scientists for taking your root beer away.

  4. Most rootbeer flavouring now seems to be methyl salicylate, which I’d presume was much more lethal (reye’s?)

    I’ve never tried proper rootbeer – mine too was stolen by scientists, but my favourite is the F&N’s Sarsi – Malaysian version (the chinese version doesn’t have enough flavouring)

  5. There are number of folks in Lancaster County, PA, USA that make old-fashioned root beer and sell it along the road. Just a cooler, a cash box, and a sign.

    In the one I get most frequently, the sassafras flavor is right up front. It’s fantastic.

    • I’ll look for it if I’m up that way. If I look hard enough I should probably be able to find some in the rural parts of NC too.

      I might have to do some sassafras harvesting and brew some up myself.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. I think I ran across a gal who made rootbeer from the leaves (not in a commercial kitchen; had some effort raising those trees without enough wind.) She was keeping at finding the stressor to get more flavor, too. A plausible way to ‘make polluted water more palatable.’ Her nerves. It’s probably impossible to beat lychee flavor variants for throughput, though.

  7. I don’t know where the taboo surrounding conspiracies came from. Maybe because the conspiracy theories we often hear are simply the nutty ramblings of mentally ill people. Or maybe because comic books have trained everyone into associating conspiracies with comical “Legion of Doom”, costume-wearing, dungeon-inhabiting baldies when they are a much more banal reality. All a conspiracy is is a deal made in secrecy between two or more people for their own benefit but to the detriment of others. Gee, like that NEVER happens. Ever hear of lobbying? You think lobbies are going to come out and tell you what they’re really lobbying for half the time? The lobbying of the FDA is a daily occurrence that is or should be common knowledge by now.

    Think ephedra. Ooo, big scary ephedrine. A precursor to meth! The science there was all bull, too. The think to realize is that bad science is often done in the context of some ulterior motive (like Bush lying about WMDs in Iraq to justify war).

  8. The thujone toxicity discovered for the purpose of banning absinthe – and it was based on completely shoddy science, paid for by french winemakers (who saw the mass popularity of the drink as a threat)…

    Regarding safrole: So rat LD50 is 2 g/kg – this is truly alarming: sodium chloride rat LD50 is 3g/kg ! NaCl is bad for kidney, liver and cardiovascular system. And it makes cars rust.

    • Yeah, it’s a lot like thujone. Did you read that post? I guess the FDA, via the TTB, relaxed a bit on thujone and allow up to 10 mg/kg, but that’s still ridiculously low.

      I thought about comparing safrole LD50 to something known, and narrowed it down to acetaminophen (2 g/kg) and salt (3), but I ended up cutting it out. So good call.

      It’s a bad cycle too. What are the odds of a PI getting funding on a proposal to show that safrole is less toxic than believed? I’d say about as good as the FDA reversing its ban.

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  10. Dale Pendell I thing quoted in one of his books on plants and poisons’s that safrole is roughly comparable to being 15x less carcinogenic than ethanol…….

    yeah, the FDA and DEA are both twisting the nut on this one…..still, the root/cortex is tolerated in whole form outside of being used as an ingredient for food processing.
    The FDA made pappy’s sassafras syrup company remove the safole from their extract tea product…….nice thing is its real easy to put some back in.

    amazing though how little of the root can make one feel like utter shit…..I can eat nutmeg with no problems, but a small chunk of sassafras is not much of a way to start the day.

    my interest in this plant intersects the subject of reticuline/salutaridine isoquinoline compounds found in various plant materials…which to this opiophile is the holy grail of researching the amazing endogenous morphine/codeine biosynthetic pathway found in various mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and some invertebrates.

    I noticed that a handful of herbs/plants that are well known foods/medicinal herbs contain reticuline/salutaridine, and just happens that almost , maybe all of them I have focused on are known in part as analgesics at least from folkloric/anecdotal perspectives. the production of morphine from l-tyrosine seems to carry on further from a similar production of dopamine from l-tyrosine.

    I have pretty severe ADD issues, near narcolepsy, explosive violent behavior under pressure, panic attacks at night etc…..that is unless I am properly medicated with stimulants…..too bad I dropped out of college before finally approaching stimulant treatment at age 40, that until that point I self medicated with opiates that had a similar fix on the problem….but with more side effects and seem to worsen sleep issues and violent outbursts are not as well handled, the opiates did help with daytime somnolence very well.

    reticuline and salutaridine containing plant materials at times have seemed to help to a degree…better than opium tincture at least, although initially not as enjoyable. kratom and or uncaria suffice if stimulant medication is problematic.

    I assume that croton and sassafras to some degree may have analgesic effect due in part to isoquinoline alkaloids.

    root beer is my favorite beverage next to a bad ass ginger beer….or one in the same, even better…..throw in some additional oroxyline a component is thee best.

    great article sir….

    BTW ,have you any knowledge into the subject of feeding studies and the subject of reticuline/salutaridine and endogenous morphine production in the body or possible influence production in the brain? (besides white blood cell production via sepsis)

    • No, I don’t. I’m just familiar with reticuline/salutaridine as natural products found in opium poppy. But my guess is that our body won’t convert them to morphine, we just don’t have the same enzymes as the poppy for the biosynthesis.

      Thanks for reading, and for the Dale Pendell tip, I wasn’t familiar with him or his works.

  11. I would think that Safrole could very well be carcinogenic- although I am not sure about the amount that was used in root beer and what kind of effect it would truly have.

    When you hydrolyze Safrole, which can happen in acidic conditions (upon consumption), it results in two products: a diol and formaldehyde. Maybe hearing “Safrole is a carcinogen” is not very convincing, however I believe that formaldehyde is much more well known as a carcinogen- at least personally. Perhaps drinking root beer with Safrone would never a cause a problem- however using my knowledge of chemistry, it seems that classifying it as a carcinogen is not completely unjustified.

  12. I was just on a business trip to Toronto where I discovered a Canadian brew called ‘Babbling Brook’s Root Beer’. It uses an old recipe that includes sassafras root and it’s amazing. It’s only available at the Nickel Brook brewery and a few local stores and restaurants, but it’s hands down my favorite root beer out of the 98 different brews I’ve tried.

  13. I grew up on sassafras bend on the Tippicanoe river..we drank it almost daily throughout the summer and often in the winter and my father is almost 90 and no side effects… in fact no one in my family has suffered any of the supposed side effects…..nor any of the neighbors who drank it regularly too… it’s a hoax

  14. Loving that ol fashion sassafras root beer here. Thanks so much for the article. Just a thought, suppose people started making themselves healthy for free, hmmm who would become irrelevant from this? Hundreds of our of work rats at the FDA.

  15. If you want to try it, just go anywhere in the east and dig up some of the roots (saplings are of course easiest). I lived in Maryland and they were everywhere. Wash and peel the roots and boil them in water. The water will quickly turn red and you’ll have a root beer flavored tea. Used to do this when I was younger and when I lived somewhere they grew – not too often though, since it’s quite a physical effort to dig up the roots.

  16. Fabulous article! I grew up in Indiana, with very fond memories of actually buying it in the local grocery store in little baggies displayed prominently in the produce section. Thanks to this wonderfully written and well substantiated article, I’m proud to report that I’m going back on the Sassafras train! Cheers…

  17. I was demonstrating at a pioneer village, and someone asked me if I was making sassafras tea over the fire. I replied no, that I often did, but this time I had roasted my own coffee beans, so i was making coffee. The lady was elderly, probably in her 70s or early 80s. She told me that her mother had been one of 9 children. The local Dr. told her grandmother that if she would promise to give her children one cup of sassafras tea every day, he would treat them for free whenever they got sick. I asked her if her mom had ever gotten sick, and she said “Not very often.”

  18. As a child I lived in the mountains of Appalachia (late 50’s) . Myself and a couple of friends used to search out small sassafras trees for the roots. We would take the roots home, wash, then boil them to make tea. I drank that tea all winter each year. I loved the taste, and especially enjoyed the pleasant aroma. I didn’t often get sick as a child, and I seldom ever get sick now either. I noticed the root beer had changed a few years back, but didn’t know why. Someone told me they had outlawed sassafrass. Rootbeer made any different than with the sassafras root is just NOT Rootbeer. Sorry, they should call it “imitation” Rootbeer soda! Like with most things, greed took over, tradition and quality soon went by the wayside in favor of the “almighty” dollar!

  19. Sassafras root bark is available online. I buy it and keep it in the freezer, and when I’m ready to steep me some tea, I drag it out and fire up the hot water. I make it really strong so I can make a syrup out of it [1 c. very strong sassafras tea to 3 c. sugar; add a little corn syrup to keep it from crystallizing]. Add to your favorite root beer…or drizzle over your vanilla ice cream for an “up-side-down rootbeer float”!

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