A traditional summertime activity across Amish communities (and those who just enjoy some good old-fashioned foamy fun) is the sweet delight of making homemade root beer. Yet, one of the main ingredients used was banned by the FDA for its cancerous connections. Here, we delve into sassafras, safrole, and some of the substitutes makers use to recreate that beloved, old-time root beer flavoring.
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If you had a hankering to try making your own root beer, as many in Amish communities are known to do through the summer months across rural Pennsylvania, you might get stuck when the recipe calls for sassafras.

In addition to being the go-to flavoring for a delicious, foamy mug of root beer or root beer-flavored candy and gum of days gone by, sassafras, known by many names including Ague tree, cinnamon wood, and saxifrax, is a plant that is used in a plethora of ways. Once upon a time, it was used to add scent to soap and to flavor toothpastes by major brands. For generations, the root of the plant has been used medicinally to help relieve infections, bronchitis, and for other health conditions. Sassafras oil has been used topically through the ages to soothe arthritis and bug bites.

However, in 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put the kibosh on its commercial use, citing studies in the 1960s that showed a chemical in sassafras called safrole causes cancer in rats. The American administration aren't the only naysayers; the European Commission on Health also considers sassafras to be carcinogenic.

According to various interpretations of the study, the rats were given the equivalent of a person drinking 32 bottles of root beer a day. Nonetheless, the root was removed from the beer and has since been replaced with wintergreen and other proprietary flavors by major root beer manufacturers like A&W, Stewart's, and Barq's.

Meanwhile, just in case you were wondering, safrole can also be found in anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper.

Folks who make their own root beer don't let a little sassafras ban on the major manufacturer's soda recipes hang up their smaller scale operations. In local kitchens, many opt to use an extract that tastes a lot like sassafras, or even a safrole-free sassafras.

Homemade Birch Beer Drink
Credit: bhofack2/Getty Images

Where to Buy Root Beer Extract

In the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, where a strong Amish community thrives, the roadside root beer purveyors are a summertime staple and are going strong, thanks to myriad faux flavoring options.

Two area companies have stepped up to provide the essences that give many of the local root beer brewers the taste they want in their homemade beverages. One company is called Shank's Extracts; the other, Stoltfus Root Beer Extract. Makers can also order root beer extracts online, of which there are dozens.

Amazon and Walmart carry many extracts, including Silver Cloud Flavors Natural Root Beer Extract, Larissa Veronica Root Beer Flavor Extract, and McCormick, known for its extensive line of kitchen flavorings including vanilla and pumpkin pie spice, makes one called Root Beer Concentrate.

Silver Cloud Flavors and Larissa Veronica brands' listed ingredients are simple: ethyl alcohol, water, and natural flavor. Extract companies are known to use the descriptor "natural flavor" to keep their recipe proprietary.

McCormick's ingredient list is a bit more extensive, including water, artificial coloring, corn syrup, sulfites, and preservatives, such as sodium benzoate. A Google search brings up countless more root beer brewing extract options for purchase on various internet sites. If you're making your own homemade root beer, the right extract option for you may come down to one simple rule: which you think tastes the best.

What's in Homemade Root Beer?

The root beer recipe is simple enough. It consists of sugar, yeast, water, and flavorings of choice, left to ferment for natural fizziness. And though the FDA has eliminated sassafras from commercial use, it's apparent that plenty of people still reach for sassafras to get the authentic, traditional root beer flavor they crave in what they make at home.

One recipe suggested using sassafras, sarsaparilla, ginger, licorice, and dandelion root. Another recipe called for makers to incorporate molasses, allspice berries, mint, cloves, and/or cinnamon alongside the risky root.

For those adventurous enough to add sassafras to the pot, ground wild sassafras root bark is readily available for purchase by Etsy sellers for a few dollars less than the artificial extracts. True root beer aficionados describe foraging for the bushy sassafras tree's roots, which can be harvested along the roadside or in the woods across the east coast of America, where they like to sit in the shade of taller trees.

Aside from the sassy sassafras root, there are many ways to flavor your homemade root beer. Being armed with the knowledge of some of the secrets behind this tasty pop's delicious, authentic flavor will hopefully help you to more steadfastly pick your poison.