Why Is Sassafras Banned?

Reviewed on 3/4/2021
Sassafras was once used to manufacture root beer, a common beverage.
Sassafras was once used to manufacture root beer, a common beverage.

The roots and barks of the sassafras tree contain a high concentration of the chemical named safrole. Safrole was listed as a carcinogen in rats by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is hence banned at present. The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount consumed and duration of consumption. Safrole is also used in the production of an illegal drug called Ecstasy (MDMA [3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine]). 

Sassafras was once used to manufacture root beer, a common beverage. Today, the manufacturers have started removing safrole during processing to make safrole-free sassafras. Some scientists claim that even safrole-free sassafras can increase the risk of tumors. The following reasons seem to make sassafras unsafe:

What is sassafras?

Sassafras is a native plant to North America and was used by the Native Americans for various medicinal cures and cooking spice. The roots and barks of sassafras contain a high concentration of the chemical safrole, whereas the leaves do not contain safrole. The drug is usually extracted from the peeled root of the plant. Sassafras is also known as saxifras, ague tree, cinnamon wood, and saloop.

What are the uses of sassafras?

Despite the safety concerns, sassafras is used for the treatment of the following conditions as a herbal remedy:

Apart from medicinal uses, sassafras was also used as a food additive in the past. People used to drink sassafras tea. However, sassafras tea contains a high concentration of safrole, which was about 4.5 times the permissible dose. Thus, in 1976, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sales of sassafras tea. Moreover, the FDA prohibited the use of sassafras as food additives. The current brands of root beer use synthetic flavoring in place of sassafras.

Other applications of sassafras include:

  • It is used as a scent in perfumes and soaps.
  • Leaves are used as a thickener in soups.

Who should avoid using sassafras?

It is unsafe for anyone to use sassafras in medicinal amounts. However, there are certain populations who should completely devoid themselves from using sassafras, which include the following:

  • Pregnant or breast-feeding mothers: There’s a risk of miscarriage.
  • Children: A few drops of sassafras oil can be lethal.
  • Planned surgery: It is advisable to stop using sassafras 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery. Sassafras can slow down the central nervous system and cause drowsiness. When combined with anesthesia, sassafras might affect the central nervous system.
  • People with urinary tract conditions: Sassafras might exacerbate the symptoms of urinary tract disorders.
  • People taking sedatives: Taking sassafras along with sedatives might cause too much sleepiness.

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References
https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-674/sassafras

https://www.rxlist.com/sassafras/supplements.htm

https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/sassafras

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