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I am interested in trying to incorporate wild sassafras (roots, mostly) into my cooking. I have established definitively that the plants are sassafras, and not something else, so I'm not worried about accidentally picking the wrong thing. However, I was reading up on it, and Wikipedia seems to think that the plant can be poisonous. How true is this? Is there a way to ensure safety in my cooking (beyond scrapping the project altogether)?

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I don't think the US government puts blanket bans on food additives without good cause. In this case there was scientific research showing that it was carcinogenic in laboratory animals. Do you have any reason to suspect that the FDA got it wrong? –  Jefromi Jul 18 '12 at 4:10
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No. I was just unsure of how to source the information, and whether the entire plant was carcinogenic, and whether I could get around it. Also, they tell me grilling meat is carcinogenic. I have reason to suspect that the US government tends to panic rather easily. –  Adele C Jul 18 '12 at 4:45
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Safrole is the potentially carcinogenic substance. It doesn't seem to be a big problem (looking at the list that Wikipedia cites, it's below beer and wine and above coffee and orange juice). It's not completely banned - you can buy sassafras online. I don't think it would kill you, but you would use it at your own risk. (Also, it seems to be an MDMA precursor - I don't know how much that had to do with the decision to ban it.) –  user5561 Jul 19 '12 at 4:00
    
@user5561: The only part of the sassafras plant that can be sold or purchased is the leaf, and it has to be certified to have a certain maximum concentration of safrole. –  Josh Caswell Jul 22 '12 at 20:31
    
well, I found several places claiming to sell "sassafras root bark" - I don't know exactly what "root bark" is, though... –  user5561 Jul 22 '12 at 23:19

1 Answer 1

I have been cooking with sassafras roots for years, all wild, as taught by my Indian Lore classes in scouting, and what I teach to current scouts. I also have taught specific recipes with the leaves, but only as flavoring in steaming and such, never eating (not for harm or issues, but because of the bitter aftertaste of the leaves)

As far as your actual questions:

  1. How true is this?

  2. Is there a way to ensure safety in my cooking (beyond scrapping the project altogether)?

For 1, I would have to say that they are true, but also clinical, and I have not been able to discover any documentation that sassafras directly harms humans, only that some of the compounds found in sassafras are harmful at higher levels, and given that the plants are wild, the concentration levels are unknown.

For 2, I would say that one standard root (approx 6 inches in length of varying circumferences) is good for about a half of a gallon to a gallon of water, boiled 2 to three times. If you want a concentrated flavor, boil the water down, and you will get a more potent mixin liquid. (also used for making beers, and ales - ginger ale included, both alcoholic and non alcoholic)

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Note that filé powder, used as a finishing/thickening ingredient (cajun gumbo, creole stews, etc), is made from sassafras leaves (as other comments indicate, with no "detectable" safrole). –  zanlok Dec 14 '12 at 21:45

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