It’s not smart or nice to lie about plants. It can get someone hurt. But the truth can sometimes be elusive, even with plants.
This week’s featured video is about the sassafras. And of course when you mention the sassafras as among the edibles there is always someone who hopes to throw a bucket of informed reality on that notion by saying it will cause cancer. Oh really? The sassafras is a prime example that the truth can often be an excuse to do something else.
The oil in sassafras in high amounts can induce abortions. The oil in sassafras can be used to make a popular illegal drug. Now, could those be reasons to ban sassafras oil? Certainly, but those truths were not useable in the ’50s and ’60s. Abortion and dangerous drugs weren’t talked about much. So the powers that be fell back on the old stand by: Cancer. They fed rats sassafras oil that was like us drinking water from a blasting fire hose. And guess what? The lab rats — who have to be the most cancer susceptible creatures alive — got liver cancer. The next step was easy: Assume people can get liver cancer from drinking root beer (If you drank some 9,000 gallons of it in a year.) The sassafras oil had to go.
The truth is the sassafras oil in the original root beer was 1/13 as cancer-causing as the alcohol in a can of regular beer. One thirteenth. That’s not too life threatening… not exactly a significant carcinogen. Alcohol-filled chocolate cherries are more dangerous than that, but they ain’t banned. Heck, the sugar in the root beer is more life threatening than the sassafras oil. However taken to its extreme limits sassafras oil might cause cancer in humans. That skinny truth was the excuse to get it banned. It was also the sole source of the cancer scare over sassafras.
That distortion has become medical dogma and most now sites sternly warn you to avoid “cancer-causing” sassafras. I’m sure that’s good news for the Sassafras but it shouldn’t dissuade us foragers now and then from enjoying one of the tasty trees of the forest.