Hero or Villain?

Good or bad, sassafras is powerful stuff.

Robert Meganck

Don’t consume sassafras. According to nearly every medical reference, sassafras causes hallucinations, hot flashes, sweating, hypertension, liver cancer and death. Thanks to its offending chemical compound, safrole, sassafras has been banned by the FDA since 1960. So, when you run across the sweet-smelling tree, covered with tiny yellow flowers or laden with clumps of dark, pendulous fruit, just about everywhere in the forests of eastern North America … RUN!

Or don’t. The plant’s long history, interestingly, includes no stories of direct harm to humans. Safrole is present in about half the spices in your spice cabinet—mace, nutmeg, cloves, rosemary, basil and more. And there are some legitimate questions about the studies on which the FDA ban is based.

In any case, the sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum, is a real multitasker. It grows three different shapes of leaves—oval, mitten and three-lobed—on one tree; it provided the original flavor of root beer (which goes back to colonial times); its leaves are dried and ground into the filé powder that thickens gumbo (roots contain more safrole; apparently, the leaf’s content is low enough for the FDA); its fragrance is said to repel bugs and other vermin; its wood is great for building. Most of all, though, sassafras was for a long time the cure-all, reputed to fix everything—the common cold, gout, kidney disease, arthritis, skin ailments, sprains, gastrointestinal complaints, liver trouble, malaria, syphilis, even cancer—and Native Americans used it from time immemorial. In fact, sassafras was one of the most coveted commodities found in Europeans’ pre-colonial investigations of the New World.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a six-year patent from Queen Elizabeth I that entitled him to whatever he found across the Atlantic, with the contingency that he establish a colony in that time. So, in 1585, Raleigh sent an expedition, which landed near the southeastern edge of Virginia. Thomas Harriot, an explorer-navigator-scientist, and John White, an artist, were to map and document the natural resources of the region. One of their finds was sassafras, not native to Europe but already well known there—especially for its near-magical capacity to relieve “the French pox” (syphilis). It would mean a goldmine for Raleigh.

That first attempt at colonization failed, as did the second—the ill-fated Roanoke Island colony, which, for all historians know, evaporated. Meanwhile, back home in England, Raleigh was selling sassafras at a huge profit—until Bartholomew Gosnold returned with his own cargo of the stuff, in 1602. Raleigh had the cargo seized (no one seemed to remember that his patent had expired a dozen years prior), but the secret was out; prices fell, and the sassafras market soon collapsed, though the plant remained popular. Ironically, Gosnold would go on to help found the colony that finally survived, Jamestown … where, not so ironically, he promptly died.

Fast-forward to 1960, to the studies concluding that sassafras caused cancer, in which lab rats were force-fed doses of safrole that no rat would ever consume voluntarily. Alternative medicine practitioners, ethnobotanists and others contend that, as the great physician Paracelsus reputedly said, “the dose is the thing.” Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Ore., notes that it later turned out that the cancer-causing agent in the rats was not directly safrole but a rat-specific metabolite—a product of the rats’ metabolizing of safrole—that, lo and behold, does not occur in humans. Dharmananda quotes an article from the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology: “‘It is likely that the use of these high doses [in animal studies] markedly overestimates the potential hazard to humans ….’” He cites studies that demonstrated the lowest liver cancer incidences nationwide in the Appalachians and other regions that consumed sassafras regularly. Hmm.

So maybe the story of sassafras has more surprises ahead. And maybe, one day, we’ll get to taste real root beer again.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
June 11, 2022

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