Sarsaparilla is the generic name for three separate plants: Smilax regelii, or Jamaican sarsaparilla; Smilax glyciphylla, or sweet sarsaparilla; and Hardenbergia violacea, or native sarsaparilla. Most references to sarsaparilla refer to Jamaican or sweet sarsaparilla, vines that grow in South America and Australia. Sarsaparilla has had a number of uses over the years, although today its uses are more limited. Sarsaparilla is also called sasparilla; sassafrass is a similar vine often used in place of authentic sarsaparilla.
Food and Drink Flavoring
Sarsaparilla is best known as a flavour for soda. Root beers sometimes contain sarsaparilla, and in Australia and Asia, a number of sarsaparilla-flavoured drinks are popular, including Thai Heysong Sasparilla soda. In the United States, Briar’s and Hanson’s both sell sarsaparilla soda. Sarsaparilla is also used to flavour food. Sarsaparilla oil can add its flavour to just about anything: in the 1930s, sarsaparilla cake was popular in the United States.
Herbalists claim that sarsaparilla can be used to rid the body of toxins. Herbalist C. J. Puotinen writes that 2 tbsp of ground sarsaparilla root boiled in 1 cup of water is an agent for detoxing the liver and intestines through its properties as a diuretic and demuculent. According the Tropical Plant Database, flavinoids found in sarsaparilla act as liver protectants.
Sarsaparilla is also considered a stimulant like caffeine. Taken as tea or in soda form, sarsaparilla appears to have the same effect as Coca-Cola, acting as a “pep tonic.” It can also be taken as capsules of ground root. The chemicals in sarsaparilla act to increase blood flow, reduce inflammation and open up airways, all of which can make you more alert and active.
Other Traditional Uses
In Asia and South America, sarsaparilla is also used to treat headaches, joint pain and rheumatism, the common cold, leprosy, dermatitis, psoriasis, acne and other skin conditions, and even syphilis and gonorrhoea. It is also used to treat kidney problems (relying on its diuretic properties), cancer and wounds that do not heal.
Of the many uses listed above, sarsaparilla has been clinically proven to treat the skin conditions psoriasis, eczema, acne and leprosy (1942), respiratory conditions (2002) and syphilis (1950). Its antibacterial elements are primarily responsible for its effect on these conditions, particularly skin ailments and syphilis. Current studies are being done on the effectiveness of sarsaparilla on arthritis, rheumatism and liver conditions, and its use as an antifungal agent.
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