In the 1950's mythology of the old west, the good guy hero cowboy (with a melodious singing voice) would often avoid the "rot gut" served at the saloon and instead order a root beer. From an herbal perspective this is a strange scene. The nineteenth century old west was long before prohibition and the idea that alcohol was a danger to man and society. Root beer was known to the nineteenth century cowboy, but not as a beverage but as medicine.
Many different roots have been used to make root beer. The most well known is sarsaparilla. There are many different plants that are known as sarsaparilla. The roots of these plants were seen as "blood purifiers" in the terminology of the nineteenth century herbalists, and were used to treat various infections. In the case of sarsaparilla, the infectious condition for which it was most often used was syphilis. This little bit of history changes the perception as to why the cowboy was drinking root beer. I believe that this tidbit of information was not understood by the writers of those cowboy stories.
Some of our other soft drinks have similar medicinal origins. We forget that many of our modern soft drinks were originally dispensed in pharmacies around the turn of the twentieth century. Around the time that many of the old classic sodas were created, the local pharmacist handled a mix of new chemical medicines as well as herbs and minerals of the local folk medicines. Popular were herbs that were bitter. Bitter herbs were often the base of most "cure alls" of the day because bitter herbs cleared fever and infection(herbalists call them cooling). Because they were bitter, sugar was added to make them taste better. The cola nut and coca leaves also became popular with Pharmacists in their herbal cure alls. The cola nut provided a caffeine kick like another classic stimulant, tea. Coca leaves were known to South American natives as a herb that could enhance energy and stamina. These ingredients as well as some other herbal flavors, formed the basis of the modern cola. It was a drink that tasted good, had a bit of an energy kick, and could be marketed as "healthy and good for you". The coca leaf, while not habit forming or dangerous in traditional leaf form, was dangerous in the purified form of cocaine and thus that ingredient was dropped.
Many pharmacists created secret formulas to sell as health drinks. Some like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Royal Crown Cola continue to be sold to this day. The bitter (cooling) flavor of colas and root beers makes them a perfect taste compliment to the rich greasy (hot) foods (like burgers and fries) that we Americans love. This is much the same thing as bitter coffee being a favorite beverage after a rich meal. It helps our bodies feel better after a heavy meal thus encouraging the habit of using those beverages more. These "Medicinal Health drinks" eventually lost the "medicinal" label and became popular beverages through national marketing.
Artificial flavors and high fructose corn syrup, and the one liter serving have replaced the herbs, cane sugar and seven ounce servings of the past, but cola and root beer still hold a special place as the favorite beverages we introduced to the world.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066