Sassafras: A True North American Flavor

Most of the popular herbs and spices come from tropical regions, usually the Far East but sometimes from Africa or from Central and Latin America. Sassafras is different in that it comes from North America. The tree that produces it comes belongs to the Lauraceae family that includes cinnamon and the bay trees that give us bay leaves.

The sassafras tree is found mainly in the Eastern United States. Sassafras was one of the Jamestown Colony’s first exports in the 17th century. The colonists learned about the tree’s value from the Native Americans who used it to ward off illnesses. The Europeans would come to see it as a wonder drug that was capable of curing numerous diseases. Sassafras was so popular at this time that it would be the second most important export from America. Only tobacco was more important during this era. There were penalties imposed by the government on colonists who failed to produce the mandated 100 pounds per person.

In the years after, extracts from the bark and root would be used to make tea and other beverages including root beer. In the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration would ban the use of safrole. The result is that the makers of both sassafras teas and root beer had to remove safrole from their products. Both beverages are now made with artificial sassafras flavorings or sassafras extract that contains no safrole.

Ground sassafras leaves are called file powder, which is used as a thickener.

Flavor profile of sassafras

Sassafras is highly aromatic with an earthy flavor that has notes of anise and lemon. There are also notes of eucalyptus and root beer.

Health benefits of sassafras

Sassafras provides numerous health benefits, many of which are from its safrole content. The compounds in sassafras that provide its health benefits include:

  • Safrole: On its own, Safrole is said to be effective for treating several health conditions including scurvy and rheumatism. Safrole is controversial because it is a carcinogen and is capable of inducing mutation. Other reasons to exercise moderation include the fact that overuse can result in damage to the kidneys and liver.
  • Camphor: Camphor is considered a carminative, an antispasmodic as well as an antiseptic. In addition to those benefits, it is an effective stimulant that boosts your circulation and that improves digestion.
  • Mucilage: Sassafras leaves in the form of file powder are an effective thickening agent because they are mucilaginous. Mucilage is the soluble fiber with a viscous consistency that we see in chia and flax seeds.

Sassafras has been used to treat a variety of illnesses, including:

  • Syphilis: Sassafras tonic was used as a treatment for syphilis in the 17th century. This was arguably the main reason that it was so profitable as a commodity for export.
  • Chronic pain: More recently, researchers have discovered that it has painkilling and antiseptic properties.
  • Infection: Its antimicrobial properties are believed to boost the immune system and protect both the gastrointestinal system and respiratory system from infection.

Common uses of sassafras

The file powder made from sassafras leaves is best known for its role in Louisiana gumbo, where it is used as a thickener. It is also used to thicken various other bisques and stews. File powder can be sprinkled over salads while whole, fresh sassafras leaves can be included among salad greens.