The Flavour of the week is sassafras. Sassasfras is a tree indigenous to the North Atlantic region of the US, though it has been imported and planted in the UK and Europe. The tree stands between 20 to 40 feet high and is covered with a orange-reddish bark. The plant is further identifiable by its unique pattern of three different shaped leaves: a mitt, a glove, and a ghost. Its flavour is a unique cross between a subtle nuttiness and a bright citrus.
Sassafras root bark produces an essential oil that is used in perfumes and soaps.
Sassafras extract was a primary ingredient in root beer before the production became commercialized. Sassafras powder, made from the dried and ground leaves, is used to make spicy filé powder, an essential ingredient in Cajun and Creole cooking. Sassafras was the main ingredient in sarsaparilla, another beverage that has fallen out of favour. The ingredient is still currently used by microbrew enthusiasts to make beer.
Nowadays commercial "sassafras oil" is generally a by-product of camphor production in Asia or comes from similar trees in Brazil. It is not true sassafras and does not have the same lovely lemony intensity. Safrole is a chemical compound isolated in sassafras production and is a precursor for the ingredients used to manufacture the drug MDMA (ecstasy), so its transport is monitored internationally.
Sassafras has also been shown to cause liver cancer when administered in large doses to lab rats. In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil and safrole in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs based on the animal studies and human case reports. Several years later, sassafras tea was banned, a ban that lasted until 1994. Sassafras root extracts which do not contain safrole or in which the safrole has been removed are permissible, and are still widely used commercially in teas and root beers.