Are root beer and sarsaparilla the same thing?

Answered by Bill Hernandez

Root and sarsaparilla were once two distinct beverages, but over time, their compositions and uses have evolved. Historically, sarsaparilla was made from the root of the sarsaparilla vine, while root beer was made from the roots of the sassafras tree. However, due to health concerns, sassafras has been banned by the American Food and Drug Administration for commercial food production since 1960.

In terms of flavor, sarsaparilla and root beer share some similarities but also have distinct differences. Sarsaparilla has a unique, earthy taste with hints of vanilla, caramel, and wintergreen. On the other hand, root beer has a more complex flavor profile, often incorporating a combination of spices such as anise, cinnamon, and clove, along with a sweet and creamy undertone.

The ban on sassafras in root beer production has led to the use of alternative ingredients to mimic the flavor of the original recipe. Nowadays, most commercially produced root beers use artificial flavorings or natural extracts to achieve the distinct taste associated with root beer. These substitutes aim to replicate the flavors once derived from sassafras.

It is important to note that the sassafras tree itself is not inherently harmful. The health concerns surrounding sassafras are primarily related to a specific component found in its bark and roots called safrole. Safrole has been shown to have carcinogenic properties and may pose a risk when consumed in large quantities or over a prolonged period. Therefore, the use of sassafras in food and production, including root beer, has been heavily regulated to ensure consumer safety.

As a sommelier and brewer, I have encountered various root beer and sarsaparilla recipes throughout my career. I have witnessed the shift towards using alternative ingredients to replicate the flavors once derived from sassafras. While sarsaparilla and root beer may have shared a common lineage in the past, they have diverged in terms of composition and production methods.

Root beer and sarsaparilla were once distinct beverages, with sarsaparilla made from the sarsaparilla vine and root beer made from the roots of the sassafras tree. However, due to health concerns related to the presence of safrole in sassafras, the use of sassafras has been banned in commercial food production. Nowadays, root beer recipes no longer include sassafras, and alternative ingredients are used to achieve the desired flavors. While both root beer and sarsaparilla may share some flavor similarities, they have evolved into separate beverages in terms of composition and production methods.