A question we often see asked in our EOCSA Facebook group is “Can I use essential oils in foods and beverages?” The answer to that isn’t a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The administrative team of EOCSA has researched and discussed pros and cons, and here are some of the conclusions we’ve reached regarding the use of essential oils in cooking and culinary projects.
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We won’t tell you that you should never use essential oils for culinary purposes, because that is neither true nor is it balanced information. However, there are a number of factors to consider when using essential oils for culinary purposes. Which essential oil is being used? (because some may be harmful when ingested). What’s the purpose of adding it to the dish? Are there safer alternatives for kicking up the flavor of foods and beverages?

Let’s look at some of the considerations regarding the culinary use of essential oils.
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Using essential oils for culinary purposes may not be cost-effective in comparison to using whole herbs or spices. Also, unlike whole herbs, essential oils provide no dietary nutrition or benefit. Essential oils DO NOT contain vitamins or minerals, only flavor and aromatics. Ultimately, using herbs, spices, and industry-formulated flavor extracts are better choices and are more likely to be cost effective.

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Culinary preparations with essential oils may not be safer than ingesting them in other forms. Risks vary by oil and dish, but can include mucous membrane irritation/damage, interaction with medications, and even possible liver or kidney damage (if used in excess). For example, there’s a recipe found around the Internet which calls for a drop or two of cinnamon essential oil on top of your child’s peanut butter and apple slice snack. Ingesting cinnamon essential oil is not without risk due to skin and mucous membrane irritation concerns as well as its blood thinning capability. Why not just use a sprinkle of real ground cinnamon?

Another recipe adds drops of peppermint essential oil to hot chocolate. Peppermint EO can irritate mucous membranes and the addition of the heat in the drink will cause the volatile compounds to rise, exposing the face and eyes to the vapors when you lift the cup to your lips to drink. Adding peppermint extract does just as well for minty flavor and eliminates possible risk.

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Precision in cooking with essential oils is important. One drop goes a long way and may even be too much in a recipe for a dish. When one of our admin team made ‘creamsicle’ popsicles and added orange oil to “boost” the flavor, it caused peoples’ mouths to burn and it all had to be thrown away. Not only did it cause physical discomfort, but it was a waste of good ingredients.

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In cooked dishes, it’s best to use essential oils sparingly and assure that there’s a ‘fat’ in the dish. Remember, essential oils are fat-soluble (they ‘mix’ into fat). Adding one or two drops of lemon essential oil, mechanically expressed from lemon peels, in place of lemon zest in a full-fat cheesecake batter is fine. However, if you added four drops of oregano essential oil to a pot of spaghetti sauce, you’d likely feel your mouth burning.

 

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Safety concerns may be greater when adding essential oils to uncooked/cold dishes more so than with with warm/hot cooked dishes. Why is this? Some recipes, like one where you drizzle an essential oil over popcorn, or mixing an oil into a cold dip or a beverage carry more theoretical risk because the essential oil molecules are in effect unchanged. Heating essential oils speeds the evaporation of volatile molecules and may cause breakdown of irritating compounds.

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It’s not “fear mongering” to warn that serving foods made with essential oils could possibly pose a health risk. Just like you would check with guests when planning a party menu to see if any have food allergies, you should consider that essential oils might have an effect on medical conditions or medications people take. For instance, photosensitive skin reactions can occur from internal use just as it can from topical application. (Tisserand and Young, pg. 85) This may be a consideration if you are serving lemonade “boosted” with lemon essential oil at your next outdoor summer pool party.

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It is true that the food and beverage industry widely uses essential oils and CO2 extracts in formulating their products. These are professional formulators and chemists with specialized degrees in their field, plus additional training in using aromatics in foods and beverages. The industry protocols they use include appropriate culinary measurements and emulsification methods not common to home use. Some essential oil companies point to the use of essential oils by the food and beverage industry in stating that their products as safe to ingest.  That leads us to….

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GRAS = Generally Recognized as Safe, the number one reason people tout essential oils as being safe to ingest.
GRAS does NOT mean approved by the FDA for ingestion. Food industry professionals know that certain essential oils are used in parts per million in food preparations, as specified in the GRAS status list for food additives/flavorings, and thus they are considered safe. The GRAS designation given to certain essential oils is intended for the food industry as flavoring agents, not for home use by aromatherapy enthusiasts for oral/internal use and self-medicating. You can read a well-written piece about what GRAS really means here.

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Also important to note is the majority of essential oils used in the food industry have been rectified, deterpenated (Arce et al) and/or fractionated. This means specific chemical components normally present in essential oils that may be a risk when taken orally, or that cause the flavor to be less appealing to the palate, have been removed. In other words, they have been chemically “altered” from their original form to make them ‘safer’ or taste better. The pure essential oils which most of us buy for therapeutic use are generally unaltered and therefore may carry more risk when ingested.

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Another consideration when using essential oils in cooking is sustainability. The overwhelming popularity of essential oils in recent years has contributed to over-use and creates problems regarding the availability of raw plant materials. This in turn causes shortages and price spikes. The result is more lower quality plant material being grown and distilled, which yields inferior oils. In some cases, the raw material may not be available at all!  One bad growing season or a natural disaster like fire (which recently decimated Australia’s Fragonia™ crop) results in skyrocketing prices, as we are currently seeing with vanilla beans..
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To summarize, using essential oils for flavoring purposes can be safe if done correctly by a properly informed consumer.  It can be a wonderful way to add complexity to favorite dishes and desserts. It ultimately depends on the recipe, how much fat is present in which to dilute the essential oil, and how many drops you are using. Other factors such as cold vs. hot dishes may be key safety considerations that should be considered.

As we have always said in EOCSA, there is little regarding aromatherapy that is entirely black and white. A dose of common sense along with a foundation of factual information from reputable resources and recognized experts is the way to proceed.

Always seek the help of trained aromatic professionals in anything you don’t fully understand when using essential oils. It could save you from encountering problems along the way.

Stay safe, everyone.

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Contributing Authors:  Sue Pace and Ginger L. Moore
This article is a collaborative written work brought to you by:  the Essential Oil Consumer Safety Advocates Administrative Team

Facebook Group:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/EssentialOilConsumerSafety/

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References:

  1. Tisserand, R. and Young, R. 2014, Essential Oil Safety: A guide for Health Care Professionals 2nd Edition., Churchill Livingston, Elsevier; pp. 84 – 90
  2. Arce, Albert and Soto, Ana 2008, Citrus Essential Oils: Extraction and Deterpenation, Tree and Forestry Science and Biotechnology, Global Science Books – Online PDF – http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/Online/GSBOnline/images/0812/TFSB_2(SI1)/TFSB_2(SI1)1-9o.pdf
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