The Reason Quillaia Is Often Found In Root Beer

As a consumable soft drink, root beer carries a mystique unrivaled by other non-alcoholic carbonated beverages. For starters, which root produces that sweet-yet-spicy flavor, and what else is in the bottle or can? As noted by the Los Angeles Times, there's never been a specific recipe for root beer, so it's apt to change flavor profiles at the hands of craft brewers and natural-food advocates. But two things are certain: The name comes from the roots of plants and at least one other common ingredient — quillaia.

Original root beer inventions called for sassafras plant roots to be added to recipes, but this ingredient has since been banned for containing safrole, a chemical the Food and Drug Administration has identified as carcinogenic (via MedicineNet). Sassafras in its extract form, however, with safrole removed, is still available for home brewers, and many root beer concoctions include slow-simmered spices, roots, and flavorings such as wintergreen, ginger, licorice, anise, ginseng, cinnamon, vanilla beans, dandelions, and juniper berries (per Portable Press).

And then there's the quillaia. Here's why the ingredient is present in many root beer recipes. 

A frothy pour

Of an estimated 25 ingredients in the original root beer formula, quillaia (also spelled "quillaja") was likely not among them, reports ThoughtCo. The Los Angeles Times notes the ingredient was added later to increase the frothy foam that defines today's beloved beverage. Quillaia is an extract from the inner bark of quillaia soapbark trees (per Puracy). The ingredient can also be found in puddings, frozen dairy products, baked goods, and body-care products including shampoos and lotions. 

For root beer aficionados, that foamy pour is reason enough to embrace quillaia. But the extract has other benefits, according to WebMD, such as lowering cholesterol and even treating bronchitis. Root beer has been touted for medicinal value since its inception; one university project found advertising slogans encouraging readers to "Join Health and Cheer/Drink Hires Root beer." The best root beer brands taste good, are alcohol-free, and include natural spices, roots, and herbs. That's sufficient for a frothy "Cheers!"