By John C. Wolf, D.O.
Associate Professor of Family Medicine®
Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine


Question: I recently heard that sassafras causes cancer. Is this true? My parents, grandparents and I have all enjoyed sassafras tea. What type of cancer should we watch out for?

Answer: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a tree common in the forests of Ohio and other northern regions. Its lumber has a brown color and distinct grain pattern similar to oak, but it is more familiar to most people as the source of sassafras tea. All parts of the tree contain some safrole, the chemical ingredient responsible for the sassafras flavor, but its concentration is highest in the roots of the plant. When I was a child, my grandfather would take me to the woods to dig up sassafras roots, so I have also had a long history of association with sassafras tea.

Animals given high doses of safrole developed difficulty walking, signs of nervousness and confusion, and difficulty with body temperature regulation. Long-term exposure produced liver tumors, including liver cancer. Because of these health risks, the Food and Drug Administration has banned safrole-containing food additives. Sassafras tea, because of its so-called "natural" status, is still available.

Scientific studies done on animals are generally a very good indicator of what will happen to humans in a similar situation. When safrole was studied in animals, the amount of liver injury was directly proportional to the amount of safrole that was consumed. That is, the more you use, the higher the degree of liver irritation.

The real risk of drinking sassafras tea is difficult to measure. It has been in use since before European immigrants came to this continent. Despite this, the medical literature isn't filled with cases of those with liver cancer due to the use of sassafras. This tends to reduce my sense of urgency about this topic. There are, however, many reported cases of profuse sweating caused by the consumption of sassafras tea.

The human body is amazingly adaptable. We survive threats to our existence from things we consume as well as from attacks from plants, animals and other substances in our environment. The health threat associated with one cup of sassafras tea is quite small. On the other hand, daily consumption of it is more of a concern, while drinking 10 cups daily should certainly be avoided. Nervousness and sweating are the signs of overuse, while liver cancer is the long-term risk.

I suggest that you treat your cultured taste buds to sassafras tea on rare occasions only. Drink other things instead, but do this in moderation, too. Large amounts of green tea, black tea, soft drinks or other products can also be detrimental to your health.

Family Medicine® is a weekly column. To submit questions, write to John C. Wolf, D.O., Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Grosvenor Hall, Athens, Ohio 45701.