Why You'll Never Be Able To Buy Real Root Beer

If you can't let the summer end without savoring at least one root beer float, be grateful that a pharmacist by the name of Charles Elmer Hires went on his honeymoon in New Jersey. According to ThoughtCo, it was there that Hires found the herbal tea he'd eventually use as a base to create and sell the United States' first commercial root beer. However, while Hires Root Beer would arrive in stores to meet incredible success, today if you buy a six-pack of the same soda you won't be enjoying its original recipe. 

In fact, you won't even be drinking real root beer. And it's not just the OG root beer brand that fails the test of authenticity. From A&W to Barq's, no store-bought root beer is actually the real deal. So why are all of these commercial sodas certified phonies? Well, you also can't drink Coke's original recipe because, well, it literally had cocaine in it per USA Today. However, the reason authentic root beer is off-limits to the public is a little more complex. 

As it turns out, some of the soda's key ingredients were actually deemed unsafe for consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — though not everyone agrees with their verdict. Let's dig deeper into the controversy and sassafras-filled past of root beer.

These root beer ingredients were deemed deadly

As ThoughtCo reports, homemade root beer was around decades before it was sold commercially. While indigenous people brewed a variety of drinks and medicines from roots, modern-day root beer came about thanks to American colonists. According to ThoughtCo, although they didn't have much to work with, the colonists didn't let that deter them from making tasty alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Called small beers, these beverages were brewed from herbs, barks, and, of course, roots. 

These by-the-boot-strap brewers created birch, sarsaparilla, and even ginger-based sips. However, Utah Education Network reports that the original root beer is what kept these early American founders coming back time after time. So what made this specific drink stand out from the others? Well, that's also a little complicated. According to McGill University, there was actually never a definitive, all-encompassing recipe for the beloved drink.

For many years, brewers would use either the sassafras tree or the sarsaparilla vine to give their root beer its distinctive taste. Although brewers' mixes differed on occasion, at least one of these ingredients was usually featured in the commercial root beers we know and love. However, according to AllRecipes, that all changed in 1976 when the FDA revealed that the safrole in these two plants could cause cancer. And so, the organization outlawed food products that utilized safrole, sassafras, and sarsaparilla. However, many sources report all is not completely right with the FDA's decision.

The root beer conundrum

As McGill University reports, today you'll likely find your favorite canned root beer is made with artificial or safrole-free sassafras. Although safrole is banned, it's still on the ingredient lists of products like nutmeg, pepper, and cinnamon. So what's going on here?

According to AllRecipes, the test that revealed safrole causes cancer was a little (and this is putting it nicely) unconventional. The study involved feeding rats enough root beer to add up to drinking some 32-odd bottles of the soda daily. After consuming this amount of the product, the rats consequently showed signs of liver cancer. To be fair, as ridiculous as this test sounds, AllRecipes notes that, at the very least, the United States isn't alone in its vendetta against sassafras. The outlet reports that the European Commission on Health also banished the ingredient for the very same reason.

Interestingly enough, McGill University also reports that some modern studies were unable to verify safrole is carcinogenic. Despite some evidence that suggests the FDA's regulation should be overruled, sassafras and sarsaparilla are still forbidden from being used in commercial root beer. And so it seems unlikely that these safrole products (and real root beer in the soda aisle) will ever return from U.S. exile.

You can't buy real root beer, but you can make it

While you may never be able to buy real root beer, that doesn't mean you can't ever taste it. If your curiosity is getting the best of you, you can make a batch of bonafide sassafras or sarsaparilla root soda right at home. 

In fact, as Allrecipes and Simply Recipes both note, many brewers across the U.S. have given up on drinking fake root beer and have turned to making it in their kitchens. And, aside from sassafras, sarsaparilla, or both, Allrecipes states all you need to join the real root beer rebellion is some sugar, yeast, water, and additional flavorings such as cinnamon and ginger. After fermenting these ingredients, you'll have yourself a batch of actual root-based root beer. 

However, if you're concerned with how you're going to get your hands on sassafras and sarsaparilla root, don't be. Even if foraging in the woods for plants isn't your speed, both roots are pretty easy to access. As Allrecipes notes, you can buy pre-picked and pre-ground sassafras root on Etsy. You can find pre-prepped sarsaparilla on Etsy, too. If you dare, take matters into your own hands and try out some actual root beer with your ice cream.