Veganism has hit the mainstream, especially with the surging popularity of plant-based diets. As a result, there is an influx of vegan products, meat substitutes, and more healthy dairy alternatives.
I have seen several supermarkets with an entire sector for vegan foods only (which is good). But as a vegan, how do you tell that these products are what they claim? The contents of some products are totally different from their names. You need to look further into the ingredients, additives, and the method used in making them.
Take for instant root beer? Is it vegan? I read about it and was surprised how far it is from its literal meaning.
So, is root beer vegan? Yes, root beer is vegan. It is an American drink with a sweet distinctive herbal flavour. Traditionally, it was brewed by fermenting sarsaparilla root and sassafras bark herbal decoction with yeast and sugar. However, watch out for companies that have added animal products like honey to their recipes.
There is so much to learn about root beer. As I said before, you need to know the ingredients and most importantly the method used in making the drink before trusting them. I’m emphasizing the method because additives can be made in many different ways. On that note, the caramel flavour in most root beers raises a lot of questions among vegans.
Natural sugars are also used in making root beer but remember that some of them, including lactose from milk, are not vegan. If so, then how exactly do you think companies manage to keep the drink 100% vegan? Read on for more information!
The Vegan Status of Root Beer
The first step to determining whether or not you can include this drink in your vegan diet is to look at the ingredients list. Root beer is generally considered vegan because its original recipe did not contain any animal products. But today’s manufacturers are replacing the natural herb flavours in beer with artificial ones. They are also carbonating the drink instead of culturing it to make it a fizzy bubbly brew. While this is still okay, the traditional recipe is still the charm.
Here’s a look at the ingredients found in root beer together with their health benefits:
- Sassafras: This was the principal ingredient in traditional root beer. It is extracted from the sassafras tree, which is very fragrant. Sassafras gives the root beer a distinctive minty flavour. Medically, it can help purify the blood while working as a renal toner.
- Dandelion root: It adds a more subtle bitter flavour to the drink and helps to improve liver health.
- Ginger: This adds a strong fiery note to the root beer. In herbal medicine, it is used to treat stomach upset and nausea, as well as supporting metabolic and cardiovascular health.
- Liquorice: It gives the brew subtle anise sweetness, helps in hormonal imbalance in females, and helps in adrenal health.
Other roots and herbs found in root beer include lack cherry wood, berries, Picea Mariana, Picea rubens, and Betula sap, resin, or syrup.
Foaming agents include soapbark and the roots of either cassava, yucca, or the manioc plant.
Besides ginger, other spices used in root beer include; mint, star anise, nutmeg, clove, fenugreek, fennel seeds, hops, allspice, cinnamon, and chocolate.
Some of the vegan-friendly additives include caramel colour, carbonated water, sugar, natural flavours, artificial flavours, and the Sodium benzoate preservative.
The traditional method of preparing root beer is quite simple but very strict. First, you need to make a herbal decoction by slowly simmering the herbs (roots, spices, and barks) in water until they release the aromatic contents in them. Secondly, add sugar to sweeten the brew and lastly a starter culture.
The starter culture consists of yeast and beneficial bacteria that are responsible for the fermentation process. The last step is to bottle the brewed drink and let it culture. During fermentation, the microbes in the starter culture consume the sugar and the drink becomes fizzy and bubbly.
Now, note that this recipe has evolved a little over the years. Companies have added various ingredients and even removed others. Others such as Not Your Father’s company process the root beer in an environment where animal products are processed.
Therefore, although their root beer ingredients are plant-based, the final product might contain traces of non-vegan components. Just to make it easy for you to know which root beer is vegan, I have listed some of the most common root beer brands and indicated their vegan status beside them:
- Mug Root Beer- Vegan
- Barq’s Root Beer- Vegan
- A & W Root Beer- Vegan
- Three Olives root beer- Vegan
- Not Your Father’s root beer- Not vegan-friendly
- Crazy Uncle X-Hard root beer-vegan
- Mad Jack Premium Hard root beer-vegan
- Lost Rhino root beer-Not vegan-friendly
- Joe’s root beer-Not vegan-friendly
Is The Caramel Colour In Most Root Beers Vegan?
The caramel colour in root beers is usually a red flag to vegans. It is used to achieve a dark colour, which is a desired characteristic in most soft drinks. When identified in the ingredients list, the first thing that crosses one’s mind is caramel candy and its non-vegan status.
The real caramel candy is made from milk products so any doubts re justified. Fortunately, the caramel colour in root beer is not made from real candy or any animal products, so it is purely vegan. Normally, caramel is obtained through browning reaction using lactose, which is the natural sugar found in milk. However, the caramel colour in root beer is produced through a browning reaction but with other natural sugars except for lactose.
Simple carbohydrates are heated in the presence of salts, alkalis, and acids using natural sugars such as molasses, sucrose, fructose, malt syrup, starch hydrolysates, invert sugar, and dextrose. None of these sugars has traces of animal products, making them safe for vegan consumption.
Note that this only applies to a caramel colour and not other caramel-related products. It is good to confirm the ingredients yourself if you are a strict vegan. Names can be confusing at times so a little research goes a long way.
Is Root Beer Alcoholic?
Commercially brewed root beer is non-alcoholic. As I mentioned above, they are artificially coloured, made with naturally existing herbs, and force-carbonated in CO2 tanks. You can enjoy Barq, A & W, Mug, and many other brands without worrying about getting drunk.
Actually, root beer falls under the category of soft drinks, which are, of course, non-alcoholic. But since there is no standard root beer recipe, companies are using different ingredients and methods while maintaining the distinctive sassafras flavour. Some of them including Not Your Father’s root beer contain around 10% alcohol.
If most of the commercial root beers are non-alcoholic, you might be wondering why then is the drink called beer? Was it traditionally alcoholic? Well, home-brewed root beer, on the other hand, contains a negligible percentage of alcohol. Most of the home-made root beer recipes you will find online indicate that the final product will have about 2% alcohol. As the activated yeast in the concoction of herbs and spices begins to feed on the sugar, the process of fermentation begins.
As fermentation continues slowly, the process of carbonation begins. In this reaction, ethanol and CO2 are produced as by-products, although in negligible amounts. It is ethanol that results in symptoms such as hallucination and drunkenness. However, with the little amount of ethanol produced, its effect on one’s sobriety is close to none.
Is Root Beer Healthy?
This question is mostly directed to those who go the vegan route for its health benefits. Well, one of the main health concerns relating to root beer is whether Sassafras is carcinogenic. In 1960, a lab experiment conducted on safrole, a component in Sassafras, showed that it causes liver cancer. However, the study also showed that this component plays a protective role in humans when used in small quantities.
After the study, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sassafras from commercial soft drinks. Since sassafras is among the main flavouring agents in root beer, how is it possible to avoid using it? Well, the amount of safrole that was used in the above test was large –an equivalent to a human consuming around 32 12-ounce bottles of the brewed drink in a day.
On the other hand, the amount of safrole in a homemade root beer is very small and, therefore, safe. Secondly, sassafras was replaced by wintergreen in root beer recipes for commercial purposes. Also, only the safrole oil in sassafras is a potential carcinogen and methods have since been invented to extract it, leaving sassafras safe for consumption. Last, but not least, modern root beer contains sarsaparilla vine, which tastes like sassafras but is safe for consumption.