What is Sassafras?

Sassafras is a native North American spice and is an important ingredient in Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana. French settlers in Louisiana introduced many local ingredients and flavorings from Native Americans, Spanish, and Africans and created spicier version of their dishes. One of the popular ingredients used is sassafras, which is added to their gumbos. The Choctaw Indians in Louisiana used ground or dried sassafras leaves (which are the major ingredient of file powder) to thicken stews and soups.


Ssassafras is native to the eastern and southeastern United States (Louisianna).

Spice Description

Sassafras is light green in color and is available as fresh or dried leaves of varying sizes (1, 2, or 3 lobes) that are used whole or ground. Ground leaves are called file powder. The dried bark of root is also used as a flavoring. The leaf has a pleasant odor that is astringent, with a bitter and anisiclike, lemony taste. The root has a woody and very bitter taste with a camphorlike odor.

Chemical Components

The leaf has about 2% to 3% essential oil, mainly -pinene, myrcene, phellandrene, citral, geraniol, linalool, and safrole. The bark has about 2% essential oil, mainly safrole (90%), which is not permitted as a food in several countries because it causes liver cancer. Safrole is removed from the leaf before it is used commercially in foods. The root has a high oil content of 6% to 9%, mainly α-pinene, phellandrene, eugenol, camphor, and thujone.

Culinary Uses of Sassafras

Cajuns and Creoles use file powder (which may contain other spices such as coriander, allspice, and sage) to flavor and thicken meat, poultry, vegetable and seafood dishes, bisques, soups, and stews. It is used to thicken gumbo, a traditional Louisiana dish made with seafood, andouille sausage, okra, crawfish or chicken seasoned with thyme, black pepper, and paprika. File powder is added to gumbo right after it is cooked and before serving. It is blended in well. If any additional cooking is performed, file powder will give the gumbo a stringy texture.

Young sassafras leaves are chopped and used in salads. The essential oil is obtained from the root, after safrole is removed, and this oil is used for flavoring the beverage, root beer, as well as meat products and confectionaries. Spice Blends: file powder, gumbo blend, bisque blend, and root beer.

Health Benefits of Sassafras

The Choctaw Indians chewed sassafras roots to bring down fevers. Early European settlers in America used it in teas and cordials as a pain reliever, to remove kidney stones, to lower high blood pressure, relieve arthritis, gout, and eye inflammations. Sassafras, a plant whose root bark is used for medicinal purposes, possesses carcinogenic properties. Herbalists may use it to treat urinary tract infections, insect bites, sprains, arthritis and gout and to purify the blood. Other names for this plant include common sassafras, kuntze saloop, sassafradx, sassafras albidum, cinnamon wood, laurus albida and sassafras variifolium, RxList.com reports. You may take sassafras as a supplement in capsule form or in a tea.

Sassafras Side Effects

Because of sassafras’ highly poisonous nature, you can only take it in extremely small quantities. You may experience side effects of ingesting any form of this plant. Taking too much sassafras could be fatal, according to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Drugs.com states that using sassafras as a medicinal herb no longer is deemed safe because of its toxicity. The organization states that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has prohibited the use of sassafras oil in food because of its potential to cause cancer.

You should always discuss any new herbal supplements you want to take with your health practitioner, especially in the case of sassafras due to all the medical warnings against using it. Dilated pupils may indicate you may have ingested too much of this herbal plan.If your pupils become dilated, contact your physician or have a friend drive you to your doctor or emergency room.

Other Names:

ague tree, cinnamon wood, saxifrax, file powder, gumbo file, and file (Creole). I

t is also called sasfras (Arabic), wong jeung, huang zhang (Cantonese, Mandarin), sassafras (Danish), sassafras (French), fenchelholzbaum (German), sasafras (Hebrew), szassza franz (Hungarian), sassfrasso (Italian), sassaforasu (Japanese), sassafras (Portuguese), sassafras (Russian), sasafras (Spanish), and cay de vang (Vietnamese).

Scientific Name

S. albidium. Family: Lauraceae (laurel family).

Photo by Randy Everette / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)