Why Do Some People Think Root Beer Tastes Like Mouthwash?

Once you know, this soda will never taste the same again.

Root Beer and Mouthwash
Photo: Allrecipes

If you grew up drinking root beer, you probably don't think anything of the spicy vanilla flavor that the soda is known for. However, some first-time root beer drinkers report thinking that the soda we Americans love so much actually tastes like mouthwash.

If you're thinking, "That can't be!" Go grab a bottle and try it with this in mind: One of the main ingredients in root beer is actually wintergreen flavor — the same flavoring you'd find in Listerine and other mouthwashes.

Root Beer Flavor History

Root beer is believed to be derived from "small beers," which were beverages (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) made from herbs, berries, and bark. It's believed that when American colonists landed in the New World they began to make the small beers with whatever they could find — like sassafras, ginger, sarsaparilla, cane sugar, molasses, and honey — because they didn't have barley to make the traditional brew. At the time, small beers were safer to drink than water because they would boil the ingredients and add alcohol to kill any harmful germs.

A closer root beer recipe to the one we know today became popular in the 1870s when a pharmacist invented a cure-all beverage. The drink consisted of herbs, roots (hence the name root beer), and berries — including sassafras, sarsaparilla, wintergreen leaf, licorice root, hops, and birch — and was thought to have many medicinal properties.

Root beer, like the one we know and love today, was first commercially sold as an extract in the 1880s. You would buy the root beer extract (which was primarily made from sassafras), then mix it at home with water, sugar, and yeast. People loved it so much that the company behind the extract, Charles E. Hires Company, began selling root beer in bottles in 1893.

After a few years, more root beer manufacturers started popping up around the U.S., like Barq's, A & W, Dad's, and Mug Root Beer. All the root beers were basically made up of the same ingredients: either sassafras or sarsaparilla, licorice root, ginger, mint, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Root beer experienced a real boom during Prohibition when Americans couldn't buy real beer, so they turned to root beer as an alternative.

The ingredients in root beer pretty much stayed the same until 1976 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sassafras in food. The FDA discovered that the chemical found in sassafras, called safrole, caused cancer in rats — so sassafras is now considered carcinogenic.

That meant root beer manufacturers had to find a new main ingredient for their sodas: enter wintergreen. The wintergreen leaf was always an ingredient in root beer, but with sassafras gone, it took the front seat as the main flavor.

Why Do Some People Think Root Beer Tastes Like Mouthwash?

There's not really a scientific reason that some people think root beer tastes like mouthwash. In fact, everyone is able to taste the minty flavor, but most of us just don't notice it.

If you grew up drinking root beer, you'll associate the flavor with delicious soda or a root beer float. But, if you're outside of the U.S. where root beer isn't easy to find and have never tried it before, you'll associate the minty flavor with mouthwash, toothpaste, or even medicine.

And, we're sorry to say, that now you know about the wintergreen flavor in root beer, you'll probably notice it more than you did before. But that won't stop us from enjoying a cold glass of root beer later!

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