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Find may lead to making root beer

Root beer with vanilla ice cream — this classic combination brings back fond childhood memories for me. It actually brings back fond adult memories as well.

Whenever I want this delicious dessert, I opt for the “natural” sodas. There are several brands that claim not to use chemicals. I’ve enjoyed them, and even more with all natural vanilla ice cream.

My favorite vanilla ice cream is my homemade recipe, for which I use only milk (no actual cream,  but you’d never know given how thick and creamy it is), eggs and vanilla.

The idea of making root beer pops into my head once every few years. I know the flavor derives  from sassafras trees, a few of which grow not far from my house.

Last week, the possibility of making my own fizzy, delicious soda came to the forefront of my attention while I planted some bulbs (late, I know). Digging on the edge of the woods I came across some tree roots — as I pulled them up the scent hit me: root beer.

The roots smelled so strongly of the drink, I thought it had to be sassafras. I didn’t realize there were any growing near that spot, but I will return for further investigation. Meanwhile, I brought the roots back to my house and sat down at my computer.

I learned that root beer is no longer made from the roots of the sassafras tree, due a ban for its use as a commercial substance after governmental lab study in which rats, given very high doses of safrole, the active compound in sassafras, for a long period of time, developed cancer.

I haven’t delved too deeply into the science behind this study, but one article I read said that the original study done in 1950 was flawed for two reasons.

The first problem was that amounts fed to the rats were unreasonably high — even if we drank root beer or sassafras tea every day we could not consume the levels of those fed to the rats.

The other flaw was that differences in our digestive systems were not considered. When rats break down safrole they produce 1-hydroxysafrole, a possible carcinogen. Humans do not break safrole down during digestion in the same way.

The article also mentioned a third party study which showed safrole to be harmless to humans, and that eastern indigenous people used sassafras as medicine, including as a tonic for general health.

I didn’t fact check all of this information, but the article led me to question the dangers of sassafras for my own use.

Through my reading I also learned that safrole is a precursor to creating the drug MDA.

Controversy aside, this native tree has been used to make tasty tea, syrup, fermented drinks (traditional root beer) and is a staple flavoring in Cajun cuisine.

After I confirm the identification of the roots I brought home I might experiment with recipes for making syrups and fermented drinks.

The recipes I’ve looked at so far call for boiling the cleaned roots, adding brown sugar or molasses and a few other spices.

Once the mixture cools, recipes call for adding yeast — some say ale yeast, another I saw claimed one could use baking yeast. As the mix cools and ferments for a couple of days it builds carbonation.

These are on the simple end of the recipes available, and they seem like a good starting point. If I venture to try and succeed or learn anything interesting to report in failure, I will write on this topic again.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, exploring possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.