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What Is Root Beer—And Why Is It Called Root Beer?

Even the biggest root beer fans might not know the history of the iconic soda. Let’s get to the “root” of root beer:

What Is Root Beer—And What Is It Made Of?

The main ingredients in root beer are pretty much the same as any other soda: water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel coloring, and flavoring, both natural and artificial. However, root beer’s unique flavor comes from sassafras, a tree root native to the United States. Historically, Native Americans used it as a medicinal herb for everything from first aid to fever reducers. Later, it was used to make gum and even toothpaste.

Back when root beer was invented, it contained many ingredients such as vanilla, molasses, sarsaparilla, wintergreen, honey, cinnamon, allspice, licorice root, and many other spices and medicinal ingredients popular at the time.

In 1960, lab studies on rats found that a compound in sassafras root caused cancer in rats, leading to the ban of sassafras root extract by the FDA. Now, commercially made root beer uses artificially flavored syrups to streamline and standardize its soda-making process and keep it safe. Each brand has its own blend of flavorings, so the taste can vary slightly from one root beer to another.

When Was Root Beer Invented?

Native Americans used tinctures and other liquid forms of sassafras for hundreds of years before Europeans colonized their land. Root beer, in an incarnation similar to what we know today, came about in the 1800s.

Around the 1840s, root beer began to be available in saloons and stores that sold candy and other soda products. About 35 years later, a pharmacist in Philadelphia began distributing the first commercially produced root beer. Interestingly, it was marketed as a medicinal beverage and an alternative to alcohol. By the turn of the century, root beer was made all over the United States by many different distributors with their own distinct recipes.

Why Is Root Beer Called Root Beer?

The name “root beer” is twofold. The “root” comes from the inclusion of sassafras root as the main flavorant, though other roots and barks were often added, so “root beer” often made sense rather than just “sassafras beer.”

The “beer” part comes from the brewing process. In the 1800s, root beer was made with yeast to get that foamy head—this addition caused the drink to ferment slightly, the way alcoholic beer is usually made. This added only a small amount of alcohol and wasn’t considered beer the way other fermented alcoholic beers were at the time, so “root beer” differentiated it. Things like yucca and soy products were also sometimes added to increase the foam and could ferment as well.

What Flavor Is Root Beer?

The primary flavor of root beer is sassafras, but the root beer we’ve come to love today is a medley of many flavors. There has never been a standard recipe for root beer, and it’s contained hundreds of ingredients over the years. Still, with the advent of mass factory production and governing bodies overseeing food production like the FDA, most brands have settled on a similar flavor profile. Besides sassafras, root beer usually has vanilla, molasses, caramel, and cinnamon notes. It’s warming, slightly spicy, and has an almost creamy flavor. Root beer is now slightly more acidic than classic root beer due to the preservatives we add to keep it shelf-stable.

Does Root Beer Have Caffeine?

Generally, no, root beer doesn’t have caffeine. Because the ingredients and recipe for root beer can vary from brand to brand, some brands may contain caffeine. Of the larger, more popular brands, only Barq’s has caffeine. If you avoid caffeine, always check the label just to be safe.

Recipes to Make With Root Beer

You may not think of a can of soda as an ingredient, but root beer can come in handy in both sweet and savory recipes. Its complex, warming flavor is perfect for sweets, while its spicy nature is an excellent match for savory foods, especially meats. Root beer is a great meat tenderizer because of its higher acid content and carbonation. The next time you crack open a frosty root beer to sip on, consider some of our favorite root beer recipes with the next can.

For more inspiration, explore our collection of Best Recipes to Make With Root Beer.

Read the original article on All Recipes.