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Answer: Yes, root beer is vegan because it’s brewed from plants. But watch out for non-vegan ingredients!
When you feel like having a refreshing drink, root beer is the beverage to have. It is a blend of rich flavors from herbs, roots, and roots sweetened to taste. Take the mint-like flavor of sassafras blended with a subtle anise-like sweetness of licorice. Mix with a sharp and rich note of ginger wrapped in a slightly bitter taste of dandelion root and a distinct sarsaparilla flavor. Finally, sweeten and ferment the concoction. The result is a sweet and creamy root beer that has a spicy taste.
Except for an instance where honey is used as a sweetener, the traditional root beer has zero ingredients that are an animal – product.
Because it derives its flavors, sweeteners, and color from plant sources, should we then assume root beer is vegan?
Over time brewers have come up with a variety of root beer recipes that might not be vegan-friendly. An example is modern root beer recipes that use white sugar.
These ingredients like white sugar and honey are not likely to pose a problem to some vegans because they are not animal products but might be challenging to strict vegans.
What Is Root Beer?
It is a sweet carbonated beverage that originated from North America. Root beer can be traced back to pre-colonial days when indigenous tribes used to brew beverages and medicine from sassafras roots. The prominent flavor in a root beer is the root bark of the sassafras tree or vine of smilax ornate. Other ingredients are an assortment of vegan roots, herbs, and barks. The traditional brewing process is vegan friendly.
Root beer originated from small beers, a collection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages like sarsaparilla beer, ginger, birch, and root beer.
Traditionally small beers were common because they were healthier to drink than the available local drinking water. People also drink them because of their medicinal and nutritional value.
Contrary to the name, root beer is actually a soft drink though it can be brewed to be alcoholic by prolonging the fermentation process. The name root beer was created by Charles Hires, ironically a teetotaler. The word root was from the main ingredient, the sassafras root. He also changed the name from root tea to root beer to appeal to the working class.
Why Is Root Beer Vegan?
All ingredients used in brewing root beer are extracted from plants and are therefore vegan. The brewing process also is vegan-friendly.
There are no specific ingredients for root beer because they vary from region to region depending on locally available barks, roots, and herbs.
The original root beer includes:
- Cherry bark
- Burdock root
- Dandelion root
- Guaiacum chip
- Wild cherry bark
- Yellow dock
- Prickly ash bark
- Dog grass
Traditionally root beer is brewed by boiling the mixture of herbs, roots, and barks to extract their flavors. Honey, molasses, or maple syrup is used to sweeten and add color to the wort. Brewers then add some water and yeast before leaving it to ferment to produce a carbonated drink.
The modern root beer was popularized by Charles Hire when he first introduced it at an 1876 exhibition in Philadelphia. He picked the art for making the root beer while on his honeymoon in New Jersey. Charles Hires’ recipe comprised more than 25 herbs, roots, and berries added to carbonated soda water. His first product was in a dry form that had to be mixed with water, sugar, and yeast then let to carbonate. But later on, Charles made a liquid carbonated root beer that he sold in bottles.
They no longer use the old traditional method of brewing root beer anymore. From around the 20th century, manufacturers began using the artificial flavor and started to carbonate instead of culturing root beer.
Why Root Beer May Not Be Vegan-Friendly
According to The Vegan Society, veganism is not only concerned with not eating any animal product, but it is also about avoiding all forms of malpractices that can cause harm to animals and human beings. The use of honey as a sweetener in root beer makes it not to be vegan-friendly. It is because in extracting honey for human use, the lives of bees are disrupted.
Modern manufacturers use white sugar to sweeten root beer. The sugar is vegan, but the bleaching process involves bone char, which makes it non-vegan.
Is Root Beer Healthy?
Root beer derives many nutritious and medicinal values from the variety of plant ingredients in it. The beverage is also brewed healthily.
The health values of some of the components are:
- Sassafras helps to purify the blood
- Sarsaparilla cleans renal systems
- Ginger helps to maintain a healthy heart
- Licorice helps in balancing hormones in women
- Wintergreen eases digestion
- Dandelion root aids in making the liver healthy
A few ingredients that are used to prepare the beverage might not be healthy. Let us look at some of them.
Sassafras, also known as ague tree, saxifrage, or cinnamon wood, is the main flavoring ingredient in root beer. Besides its unique flavor, it is nutritious and medicinal and can treat other diseases like; arthritis, bronchitis, and bug bites.
But a study in the ’60s showed that the chemical safrole found in sassafras is carcinogenic, meaning it causes cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration then banned the commercial use of sassafras.
Later research found that the harmful element occurred only in the sassafras oil, and so when a method of extracting the oil was found, sassafras was free to be used once more.
To avoid the harmful element in sassafras, vegans can drink root beer brewed using artificial sassafras flavor extract, safrole-free sassafras extract, or a substitute flavor.
Other Ingredients Containing Safrole
While taking care to avoid the unhealthy sassafras in root beer, you need to look too at the other ingredients because safrole is not only found in sassafras alone but also in other herbs like cinnamon, black pepper, anise, and nutmeg.
Like the rest of the other soft drinks, root beer is classified as a sugar-sweetened beverage. This group of drinks is associated with health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and tooth decay.
According to a report by The Journal of The American College of cardiology, one serving of such a drink can increase your risk of heart disease by 35%.
Moderate consumption of root beer or drinking sugar-free brands will protect you from these effects.
There are many brands of root beer sailing in the market. Whether you are looking for a ready-to-drink root beer or you want a homemade root beer, there are a variety of products online.
If you want to avoid sassafras, sarsaparilla-based root beer manufactured by A&W, Barq’s, and Stewart’s is a good option. There are sugar-free root beers like Jones sugar-free beverage that has many delightful flavors.
Virgil’s Zero Sugar Root Beer has replaced the artificial sweetener of 14 grams of erythritol but has retained the same taste of original root beer.
Root beer will not only offer you a refreshing beverage but unlike many other soft drinks in the market, it also has nutritional and medicinal value. I recommend it to vegans.
The challenge comes in picking a vegan root beer because typical root beer is brewed from a blend of up to 20 or more different components that might not be vegan-friendly. The challenge is compounded by the fact that there is no single recipe for root beer. Though we might have some main ingredients, different brews have additional flavors, food colors, and sweeteners.
For average vegans, root beer may suffice as a vegan beverage. But for strict vegans, there might be some disclosed or undisclosed contents that might not pass the strict vegan ethics standards. Vegans should read the labels of a root beer product to ensure that it is vegan friendly.
Unfortunately, many extract companies describe their ingredients as ‘natural flavor’ to keep their recipes proprietary. So, to know the specific contents, you could contact the manufacturers for more information.
This might be cumbersome, so I would suggest going for products like McCormick’s who have a detailed list of ingredients.
The good news is that there is an alternative way of finding out whether a root beer beverage is vegan. Vegans can google the internet sites for the contents in a root beer brand before buying.