Is It Safe to Eat Essential Oils?
We investigate whether these popular aromatherapy products belong in your kitchen, too.
The essential oil industry continues to gain momentum and is projected to be worth upwards of 18.5 million dollars by the end of 2020. Along with this boom has come a tsunami of influencers and companies touting the benefits of aromatic blends. Essential oils are everywhere — but just because they can lift the overall mood of your home through a diffuser, doesn’t necessarily mean they belong in your kitchen. Read on to find out what you need to be know before introducing essentials oils to your home or diet regimen.
What Is An Essential Oil?
Derived from plants, essential oils are substances extracted via pressure and/or steam that aren’t soluble in water. They are concentrated solutions of the aroma of various parts of plants. These oils are used in a variety of ways, including aromatherapy and topical treatments. The potent oils are often mixed with water and diffused into the air, or mixed with neutral “carrier” oils or lotions to be administered topically. Oils can even be mixed with other household items such as witch hazel, Epsom salts and rubbing alcohol to make cleaning and beauty products.
Are Essential Oils Regulated?
Most essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While some brands claim their products are “therapeutic,” there is no official definition to this term. As food science expert Dr. Taylor Wallace explains, this is not a one-size-fits-all process. “There are certainly many essential oils marketed with ‘aromatherapy’ claims that they will treat health problems or improve wellbeing. Depending on their intended use, the FDA may regulate these products as food ingredients, dietary supplements, cosmetics or drugs. The safety (and level of evidence used to substantiate claims) of these compounds can substantially differ based on which category they fall under.”
Tina Tews, NOW Beauty & Health brand manager, says that there are some over the counter (OTC) and prescription products that do contain properly vetted essential oils to claim to help with conditions like IBS or anxiety. “For these, therapeutic doses are known, established and clinically tested,” she says. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming the "natural" label on essential oils means "safe." It's a good idea to check with your doctor before taking an OTC product, especially if you take prescription medications.
Therapeutic usage of any product is met with more stringent evaluation, and in order to be eaten, the FDA can designate a product as GRAS, which stands for generally recognized as safe. Wallace adds, “Some essential oils are [GRAS] for use in food to provide flavor and some are even added to dietary supplements (they are indeed edible).” However, if an essential oil is intended for treating or preventing a disease, it's regulated as a drug and must meet certain requirements and approvals set forth by the FDA. "The FDA has, in the past, sent several warning letters to foods and dietary supplement manufacturers that make drug claims for essential oils in their products," says Wallace.
Are Essential Oils Essential to Your Diet?
Though the idea of eating plants seems harmless, can we make the jump to sprinkling these potent oils onto our foods and beverages? It seems many of the red flags come down to the potency of these oils. “Because essential oils are highly concentrated and potent plant and botanical extracts, we believe (at NOW) that diffusing the oils is the safest way to reap their benefits” says Tews. And because many of these oils are so potent, it may be difficult to measure out a safe dose. “Certain essential oils can be used in foods, but typically in amounts so small that they can’t be conveniently measured using common household measuring devices,” she says.
It is also important to note that anything added to food should be treated as food and therefore would require proper food labeling. Federal regulations require food or dietary supplements intended for ingestion to contain Nutrition Facts (food) or Supplement Facts (supplements) and serving information on the label.
And it’s not just food you have to be careful with. These oils are not soluble in water, so the popular process of turning them to tea can put you at risk. Shaking a few drops into hot water still leaves them undiluted and often floating at the top of the beverage. This means you are likely ingesting a very concentrated dose right from the first sip.
What Are the Potential Side Effects of Eating Essential Oils?
How badly can these oils hurt you? Potentially, pretty darn badly! What’s even more concerning is that the damage may be hard to assess right away. The harmful effects can vary from interactions with medications to damage to the digestive system and internal organs.
“If there is any internal damage happening, people typically don’t see it until it’s too late,” warns Tews. “Injury can range from poisoning (liver toxicity) to damaging internal organs like the esophagus, stomach lining and liver. And some essential oils are not safe to consume internally at all, no matter how small the amount.”
What About Essential Oil-Based Cleaning Products?
Even though eating them may not be the best tactic, essential oil cleaners (when properly mixed) may be a good idea for cleaning surfaces in your kitchen. Oils like lemon, eucalyptus and tea tree can be used to help cleanse surfaces in your kitchen and elsewhere in your home.
But keep it to surfaces, according to Food Network contributor and food safety expert, Toby Amidor. There is no need to rinse or wash your produce in anything other than water.
So, What's the Safest Way to Use Essential Oils?
Diffusion for aromatherapy seems to be the safest way to partake in essential oil goodness unless the the FDA has deemed it otherwise. “It's important to note that the safety of an essential oil used for aromatherapy can be different for the safety of a food or dietary supplement ingredient… so it’s never a good idea to ingest essential oils (or any other products) for aromatherapy (just like you wouldn’t want to ingest a perfume or makeup),” says Wallace.
When properly mixed with water or other acceptable carrier substances, oils can also be used topically and in cleaning products.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.