Sarsaparilla vs. Root Beer: What’s the Difference

There’s just something about opening a soda can—the cracking sound and the gentle sigh that follows—that brings a sense of satisfaction. Even for those who don’t indulge in carbonated beverages, there’s undoubtedly an undeniable sensory appeal surrounding their consumption in the United States.

Tracing back the history of soda pop, we discover that these sweet, non-alcoholic bubbly drinks have evolved significantly over time. Initially invented as an alternative to hard liquor, soda has transformed from a mixture of chalk and acid in the 18th century to the diverse array of options we have today. Among the many timeless classic flavors, root beer and sarsaparilla often leave people scratching their heads when trying to identify their differences.

Key Takeaways

  • Soda pop originated as a substitute for hard liquor, but has evolved to include a wide variety of flavors
  • The first soda pop was made with a mix of chalk and acid, and has since come to incorporate carbonation techniques
  • Root beer and sarsaparilla, though similar, possess distinct flavor profiles in the world of soda pop
Sarsaparilla Vs. Root Beer

What is Root Beer?

Sometimes, you might find yourself enjoying a tasty root beer without knowing much about its origins or ingredients. Root beer is a non-alcoholic carbonated soft drink, which has its roots (no pun intended) in root teas and medicinal elixirs used by Native Americans in North America. They utilized plants like sassafras, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla for their potential health benefits.

The flavor of modern root beer was largely influenced by the sassafras-based brew that First Nations people used for medicinal purposes. Historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin even savored this root-based beverage. As time went on, the drink has evolved, becoming sweeter and more carbonated to become the soft drink you know and love today.

However, in 1960, the FDA banned sassafras roots due to their safrole content, which is a potential carcinogen. As a result, root beer now relies on a blend of various ingredients, including wintergreen and anise, to replicate the original flavor. Today’s root beer also contains artificial flavoring, sweeteners, and preservatives like sodium benzoate to maintain its familiar taste and shelf-life.

Over time, root beer has become a popular soda pop and a staple in the realm of carbonated beverages. Charles Elmer Hires was instrumental in its commercial success, as his version, Hires Root Beer, became a well-known and beloved brand. So, next time you take a sip of your favorite root beer, remember its storied background and the ingredients that contribute to its unique taste.


What is Sarsaparilla?

Sarsaparilla, also known as zarzaparrilla, is produced from the sarsaparilla plant, a tropical vine native to Mexico, Jamaica, the Caribbean, and certain parts of South and Central America. Historically, people heavily consumed it for its medicinal properties, using it to treat various conditions such as psoriasis, arthritis, rheumatism, and even syphilis. Research indicates that the sarsaparilla plant may offer anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits too.

Interestingly, in the early 1800s, a drink named “sarsaparilla” became popular, but instead of using the sarsaparilla root, producers relied on sassafras root to give it a flavor resembling root beer. These days, most sarsaparilla drinks use artificial flavoring. However, some companies, like Bundaberg, still use genuine ingredients like licorice root, ginger root, vanilla bean, molasses, and, of course, sarsaparilla root.

The sarsaparilla vine, part of the Smilax family, is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and saponins, which contribute to its health benefits. Indigenous people have long used the Smilax ornata plant, a type of sarsaparilla, for medicinal purposes. Some of the potential advantages include relieving cough, managing cholesterol levels, and providing iron, antioxidants, and medicinal elixirs. As a result, sarsaparilla has become more than just a tasty drink, it’s a valuable addition to your health journey!

Sarsaparilla vs. Sassafras Roots

In the past, root beer and sarsaparilla were traditionally made with sassafras and sarsaparilla plants, respectively. However, they belong to different plant families. Sarsaparilla comes from various species of Smilax plants, which are underground tubers, while sassafras belongs to the laurel tree family.

When it comes to their flavors, sassafras is known for its characteristic root beer taste. Its flavor profile includes hints of anise, eucalyptus, and other earthy tones. On the other hand, sarsaparilla has a more intense and bitter taste.

Aside from their culinary uses, sassafras and sarsaparilla still have some medicinal applications today, although they address different health conditions. It’s worth noting that sassafras can be poisonous in high quantities. Meanwhile, you can find both plants in various forms, such as teas and oils.

Nowadays, the fizzy beverages we enjoy use imitation flavors since the original plants were replaced by artificial substitutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes root beer and sarsaparilla taste different?

Root beer and sarsaparilla have distinct flavor profiles. Root beer typically has a sweet, creamy taste with hints of vanilla, while sarsaparilla has a more earthy, slightly bitter flavor. The difference in taste primarily comes from the ingredients used.

Do root beer and sarsaparilla share any ingredients?

Yes, both root beer and sarsaparilla have some ingredients in common, such as sassafras and sarsaparilla root extracts. However, root beer usually contains additional flavorings, like wintergreen, licorice, and anise, which contribute to its unique taste.

Can you find alcohol in sarsaparilla or root beer?

Generally, both sarsaparilla and root beer are non-alcoholic beverages. However, some breweries produce alcoholic versions of root beer, with alcohol content similar to beer. These variants are typically labeled as “hard” root beer.

Which root beer and sarsaparilla brands are most popular?

Some well-known root beer brands include:

  • A&W
  • Barq’s
  • Mug
  • IBC

Popular sarsaparilla brands include:

  • Sioux City Sarsaparilla
  • Boylan Bottling Co. Sarsaparilla
  • Bundaberg Sarsaparilla

How do root beer and sarsaparilla compare in terms of health benefits?

Both root beer and sarsaparilla have some health benefits, primarily due to the natural roots in their recipes. Sarsaparilla is often praised for its potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, whereas root beer has a lower concentration of these beneficial compounds. However, moderation is essential, as both beverages can be high in sugar.

What’s the story behind cowboys and sarsaparilla?

In the Old West, sarsaparilla was believed to have medicinal properties and was often used as a remedy for various ailments. Cowboys drank sarsaparilla as a refreshing beverage and an alternative to alcohol. Its popularity in saloons also contributed to its association with the cowboy culture.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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