Wild Arkansas

October 31, 2008

Wild Arkansas: Sassafras–the underdog

Filed under: Edible plants, sassafras — Tags: , , — WildArkansas @ 2:13 am

The sassafras trees are just exploding in color around here. They are absolutely beautiful and I have trees I can collect leaves from, but I’ve read that sassafras has cancer-causing agents.

It turns out this is true to some degree. It’s kind of like standing behind a running car and breathing in the exhaust. The car doesn’t cause cancer, but guess what? Those fumes you’re inhaling probably will if you stand there long enough.

The literature says that besides being a main ingredient in root beer at one time, the safrole or oil of sassafras is cancerous and the plant should never be ingested orally. Products that contain sassafras oil or safrole were banned by the FDA in 1960, because of a study that I keep seeing referenced.

Some of the information on the web is just a regurgitation of bad information. Instead of doing the research needed, some will take second-hand sources and re-publish instead of checking those sources. So, instead of getting accurate information (much of the time) we’re getting regurgitated misinformation.

The study referenced for the safrole ban was actually an unpublished observation by a fellow named Benjamin Zeitlin who worked at the FDA back in 1960. He found that when he injected rats with massive amounts of safrole over a long period of time (I think it was seventy-two weeks) they developed tumors on their liver. And that was pure safrole or oil from the root bark of the sassafras that is banned, not the leaf that comes from the tree. Gumbo filé is still sold in stores and that is powdered sassafras leaf.

In the United States Code of Federal Regulations, that was revised on April 1, 2003, Chapter I, Part 189, Substancs Prohibited from use in Human Food, article 189.180 is safrole.

In article ‘b’ “Food containing any added safrole, oil of sassafras, isosafrole, or dihydrosafrole, as such, or food containing any safrole, oil of sassafras, isosafrole, or dihydrosafrole, e.g., sassafras bark, which is intended solely or primarily as a vehicle for imparting such substances to another food, (in other words), sassafras tea, is deemed to be adulterated in violation of the act based upon an order published in the Federal Register of December 3, 1960 (25 FR 12412).”

The leaf contains such small amounts of the isosafrole, that there really isn’t any danger of ever having any kind of toxic effects from it, which is why it can be sold in the file, but if I wanted to bag and send some of the leaf tea to a friend in California, I may have some legal problems.

More than that, the sassafras root cannot be used in any form even though it contains less toxicity than alcohol or black pepper and may actually contain some healing properties.

Historically, sassafras has had various culinary and medicinal uses. Medicinally, Native Americans used it as a spring tonic and passed that knowledge on to the settlers here and they also used it as a blood purifier, kidney ailments and for upper respiratory problems. So there are a variety of common things it helps with, but in 2006 Chinese researchers at Institute of Developmental Biology in China found that safrole oxide induced programmed cell death in human lung cancer cells.

Programmed cell death or apoptosis is a series of biochemical events that lead to a change in cell morphology. I’m not going to get into an explanation of how it works, because it would take too long and I don’t know that I would get the technical details correct while explaining it, but I do know that programmed cell death of human lung cancer cells is a good thing. Best of all, it’s coming from sassafras!

Sassafras has been the underdog of trees for some time now. It’s been given this bad rap that’s been carried along for the past forty years while it really has some great qualities. Besides the medicinal value, there are culinary uses. [The leaf tea is a favorite of mine.]

One thing about the Ozarks that makes it so beautiful here is this incredible explosion of color in the fall. Part of that is due to the sassafras. This tree literally bursts with orange, red and yellow and it’s an incredible show that warms the bones.

The alternating leaves look like mittens and some may have one thumb on the right, one on the left or you may find a mitten with three fingers. Occasionally a five-fingered leaf is found, but more often than not it will be those three shapes. It’s the only tree in the area that has all three leaf shapes.

To learn more about identifying the sassafras tree, watch Green Dean’s video on Youtube and a video from Haywood Community College.

To dry the leaf after collecting, wash the leaf and lay flat on a screen and cover with newspaper for two-three days. You can then use it for tea or to make the file powder.

* How to make home-made file gumbo powder.

References & Resources

Reference to B. Zeitlin and FDA (1960) F. Homburger and Eliahu Boger; carcinogenityofessentialoils, Flavors, and Spices: A Review, CANCER RESEARCH 28, 2372-2374, November 1968

In the United States Code of Federal Regulations, that was revised on April 1, 2003,

Chapter I, Part 189, Substancs Prohibited from use in Human Food, article 189.180 is safrole.

Ames, Bruce N., Dietary Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens, Oxygen Radicals and Degenerative Diseases; Science, New Series, Vol. 221, No. 4617, (Sep. 23, 1983), pp. 1256-1264

Also found online

Medicinal uses of Sassafras

1 – From the University of Florida

2- At Botanical.com

3- At Plants for A Future (Check both articles)

Medical Attributes of Sassafras, A paper by Tiffany Leptuck. Wilkes university.
Good references at the end of the article.

Study published in Biorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters in Jan. 2006 by researchers at Institute of Developmental Biology, School of Life Science, Shandong University, Jinan 250100, China.

Also…If you go to the Science Direct website and type ‘Safrole’ into the search function there’s a whole slew of new studies that come up.

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