Root beer is a North American beverage primarily made of sassafras roots (Sassafras albidum). Despite its name, root beer is traditionally non-alcoholic, caffeine-free, and carbonated. Scholars cannot pinpoint the exact origins of root beer, but a popular suggestion is that root beer came as a result of 19th-century pharmacists attempting to discover a new drug (1). Though root beer may have been made in the 19th century, beverages from sassafras roots have existed in North America even before the arrival of the Europeans.
For the most part, root beer is practically vegan. The primary ingredients that make up most root beer products are roots and herbs added with some spices for flavoring. However, the recipe for root beer is not standardized so vegan consumers are still recommended to check the ingredients list to make sure they are aware of the ingredients included. Non-vegan ingredients can be added for flavor such as honey. Other ingredients are gray areas because of some uncertainties surrounding them. These gray area ingredients include sugar and natural flavors.
Since the ingredients that makeup root beer are basically obtained from roots, herbs, and spices, root beer should basically be vegan. However, it is still highly recommended to check the ingredients list because root beer recipes are not standardized. Thus, different ingredients can be used – ingredients that can possibly make the root beer non-vegan.
A commonly used ingredient in root beer that is not vegan is honey. Honey is an excellent sweetener and is often used as a sugar alternative as it is touted to be the healthier option. Unfortunately, honey is not vegan. Not only do vegans avoid honey because it is directly obtained from animals, but recent studies show that honey from beekeeping has a negative impact on the overall population of bees in the world.
Other ingredients that other vegans typically lookout for include sugar and natural flavors. While these are not outright non-vegan ingredients, these are gray area ingredients because some vegans are okay with them while some are not.
Sugar is a gray area ingredient because some companies use bone char – charred bones of animals used for sugar refinement. Some sugar companies use bone char while some do not. However, it is difficult to determine which does and which does not, forcing some vegans to avoid sugar in general as a precaution.
Natural flavors are also commonly checked by vegan consumers. Like sugar, it is a gray area ingredient because it is not easy to determine if the ingredient is truly vegan or not. Natural flavors are an ingredient that can consist of a variety of natural substances. However, it can include both animal and plant products. Hence, it does not effectively inform the vegan consumer of it is truly vegan or not.
Root beer does not have a standardized recipe. Thus, varying recipes can be found in many different places. However, root beer is traditionally made from roots – thus its name. The roots typically used for root beer are from sassafras. However, roots from other plants and trees have been known to be used as well. These roots include sarsaparilla, licorice, black cherry, red spruce, black spruce, burdock, dandelion, and many others.
Aside from roots, herbs are also used to make root beer. These can include leaves, berries, saps, and even resin from various plants such as wintergreen, sweet birch, black birch, and more.
While roots and herbs comprise the primary ingredients that makeup root beer, spices are also added for flavoring. A wide variety of spices can be used such as allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, fennel, ginger, anise, hops, mint, star anise, and more.
Ingredients for root beer are essentially added to boiling water to steep the materials and filtered out to produce root beer. The resulting solution is then traditionally added with a sweetener such as sugar or molasses. The beverage is also typically carbonated. This is industrially performed by infusing carbon dioxide. However, this can also be done naturally with yeast fermentation.
It should be noted that while sassafras roots are traditionally considered as the main ingredient of root beers, commercially produced root beers typically use a different variety nowadays because sassafras contains an extract called safrole – a substance that has been banned by the FDA since the 1960s (2). Due to studies finding that safrole is toxic and carcinogenic, modern root beers are made with safrole-free sassafras extracts.
Honey is a sweet food substance obtained from honeybees and other insects. It is commonly used as a sweetener and a healthier substitute for table sugar. Instead of sugar or molasses, some root beer products are sweetened with honey.
However, honey is not vegan and products that contain honey are non-vegan as well since honey is directly obtained from animals.
It is commonly suggested that it takes honeybees visiting two million flowers to make a single pound of honey, a product they produce to feed the entire colony – especially their larvae.
Aside from vegans, environmentalists are also warning against honey and the honey industry. Bees are commonly considered to be highly essential members of the ecosystem due to their contributions to pollination. However, honeybees and beekeeping in general have been attributed to the overall decline in bee populations (3).
Since beekeeping for honey production keeps large numbers of hives in a single area, the vast numbers of honeybees can outcompete the native bee populations in the area. This can be quite problematic when native bee populations primarily pollinate native flora while the honeybees would not. This problem is exacerbated when the honeybees would pollinate invasive plants.
Sugar is a commonly used food additive in a wide variety of food items and beverages. It is conventionally used as a sweetener. However, it can also be used as a preservative. Many root beer products include sugar as a sweetener. Many people would logically assume that sugar is safe for vegan lifestyles. Unfortunately, sugar can potentially be non-vegan depending on how it was produced.
Sugar production begins from certain plant sources rich in sugar such as sugarcane and sugar beets. Once sugar is extracted from these plant sources, it requires minimal processing to become fit for human consumption. However, many sugar companies choose to subject the sugar to further refinement processes to make the sugar more appealing to mass consumers. Specifically, these refinement processes make the sugar whiter and finer.
One process involved in sugar refinement is filtration. The sugar juice is passed through a sieve, porous material, or filter to remove debris and non-sugar components thereby increasing the overall purity of the sugar. A physical process, filtration typically does not add anything to the sugar. However, the problem with filtration is the material used. Some companies use bone char – the charred skeletal remains of different animals (4). Although bone char is a cheap and effective filter, sugar produced with bone char cannot be considered vegan since bone char is an animal product.
The problem with bone char is that it is a material used in a single process in sugar refinement – such information does not typically get included in product labels. Thus, it is difficult for vegan consumers to determine which sugar products have been processed with bone char or not. This forces vegan consumers to have to ask sugar companies directly.
It is even more difficult for vegan consumers to ascertain if sugar is vegan or not when the sugar is an ingredient of a certain food product. Large manufacturers can possibly have multiple sources of sugar to meet their demands, making it impossible for vegan consumers to determine if the sugar they used is vegan or not. Hence, many vegans decidedly avoid sugar as a general precaution.
Vegans from other parts of the world are less worried about bone char being used in their sugar industries because the practice of using bone char is a more prevalent practice in the US.
Natural flavors are a food additive that can be commonly found in many products. Aside from other ingredients, natural flavors solely serve as a flavoring agent. It is an ingredient that can consist of various substances. Although it is indeed sourced from natural materials, vegans are cautious around the ingredient because of its vague definition. Specifically, the FDA defines natural flavors as (5):
“The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”FDA.gov
Evidently from the FDA definition, natural flavors do not effectively inform the vegan consumer because the definition encompasses both animal- and plant-derived substances. This is why natural flavors are typically considered a gray area ingredient. Commercially available root beers can be found with this ingredient. Although natural flavors can technically imply the inclusion of an animal product, root beers are typically devoid of animal products and natural flavors in root beers should be safe for vegans.