Essential oils, which are extracted from plants, are best known for their use in aromatherapy, a complementary health practice that involves inhaling the scents or mixing the oils with lotion or massage oil. There has been a growing interest in other uses for these oils, however, including using them for cooking.
Some essential oils are marketed as edible, and many blogs and social media influencers have suggested that using essential oils can boost flavor and nutrition in recipes.
“Essential oils are concentrated sources of flavors and aromas, so you don’t have to chop a bunch of herbs or peel a bunch of lemon zest to get the flavor you’re looking for in a particular recipe,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist in Ojai, California.
But adding dashes of essential oils to your dishes without caution and guidance can be a bad idea. Essential oils may be extracted from the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits of plants, per the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, but just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they’re safe. “It takes a lot of plant material to get a little bit of oil. Because of that, essential oils are really concentrated and can affect us in powerful ways,” says David S. Kiefer, MD, a clinical assistant professor and the medical director for the Integrative Health Consult Clinic at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
Moreover, their name doesn’t imply they’re essential to your diet. Rather, it refers to the compounds that affect the smell, or “essence,” of a plant, per Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS), the Department of Defense’s dietary supplement program.
So should you cook with essential oils or stick to inhaling them? Read on to find out.
Are Essential Oils Safe to Consume?
Consuming essential oils directly is generally considered a no-no. “Essential oils are fat-soluble, so they can be dangerous if you ingest them straight from the bottle or mix them with something like water, because they attach to your tissues and damage the mouth and esophagus,” says Megan Voss, DNP, RN, the director of education and an associate professor at the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing. In particular, essential oils can irritate or burn these tissues, according to the International Federation of Aromatherapists.
Still, there may be merit to combining essential oils with other substances. If you mix essential oils with a fatty substance like olive oil or milk, they will be more evenly distributed and diluted, so they’re not as damaging to the tissues when ingested, Voss says. In this way, essential oils may be safe when used in cooking — with a few caveats. (More on this shortly.)
Note that some manufacturers market their products as food-grade essential oils. However, this is purely a marketing term and isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So don’t take it to mean an essential oil is safe to ingest, notes the OPSS.
Which Essential Oils Are Generally Considered Safe to Cook With?
“You can use essential oils for culinary purposes safely, but some essential oils are better choices than others,” says Amanda Lattin, an Aromatherapy Registration Council–registered aromatherapist and the dean of aromatherapy at the American College of Healthcare Sciences in Portland, Oregon.
Your best bet is to check the FDA’s list of essential oils that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS). These substances have been shown to be safe when used as food additives, per the FDA. Keep in mind that essential oils themselves aren’t regulated by the FDA, unless they’re marketed for therapeutic purposes, notes the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing. So there’s no guarantee that the essential oil you’re using contains the ingredients or offers the benefits claimed by the manufacturer.
When shopping for essential oils to use in cooking, the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing recommends finding a product that contains the following information:
- The Latin name of the plants used to create the essential oil
- The name of the country in which the plants were grown
- A statement about purity (100 percent essential oil or altered or mixed with something else)
From there, you may want to stick with the essential oils of herbs, fruits, and spices you might normally use in cooking, Lattin says. Here are a few good options, along with their potential health benefits (though you may not be able to score these benefits in the amounts used in cooking):
- Lemon (Citrus Limon) Lemon oil lends a light, fresh flavor to a variety of dishes, including fish, chicken, baked goods, pasta, and sauces. Thanks to its bright, uplifting scent, lemon essential oil may boost your mood and promote relaxation. A study in 82 people revealed that inhaling lemon essential oil for 30 minutes lowered anxiety following orthopedic surgery. Lemon oil is also an effective antifungal: A review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that lemon essential oil was effective in fighting athlete’s foot, thrush, and yeast infections.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis L.) Rosemary is an herb commonly used to add a woodsy flavor to soups, stews, and casseroles. Research suggests that rosemary essential oil may also stimulate mental clarity and focus. In one small study, inhaling rosemary essential oil for longer periods was associated with better performance on visual processing tasks and serial subtraction tests. And another study of 53 secondary school students found that they were able to recall images and numbers better when the testing room was sprayed with rosemary essential oil.
- Peppermint (Mentha Piperita L.) Peppermint oil can add a bracing, minty flavor to baked goods and chilled desserts like ice cream. It’s also commonly used to tame muscle aches, treat coughs and colds, increase alertness, and ease headaches, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- Lavender (Lavandula Officinalis Chaix.) Lavender essential oil provides a soft floral profile that’s pleasing in ice cream and baked goods, Lattin says. It also offers calming effects, making it a popular pick for relaxation. In fact, a review and meta-analysis published in 2019, which assessed 90 studies, concluded that inhaling or ingesting lavender oil can significantly lower anxiety.
What Are the Potential Risks of Consuming Essential Oils?
In addition to irritating and burning the tissues of the mouth and esophagus, consuming essential oils directly can cause seizures, hallucinations, and coma, per the National Capital Poison Center. Some may even be poisonous. A study published in 2019 in The Medical Journal of Australia reported that toxicity from ingesting essential oils is on the rise, and “increasing frequency and severity of essential oil poisonings have been reported in Europe and the United States.”
Essential oils can also interact with medications. “Some essential oils use the same receptor sites that medications use, which can make our medications less effective,” Voss says. “They can also increase amounts of medication circulating in our body and lead to toxicity,” she adds.
For example, research in mice found that anise essential oil enhanced the effects of drugs that act on the central nervous system, such as codeine (an opioid pain reliever) and fluoxetine (an antidepressant).
Thanks to their smaller body size and immature digestive system, children may be especially vulnerable to adverse effects from consuming essential oils, warns the National Capital Poison Center.
Avoid Using These Essential Oils
Some essential oils have been linked to adverse effects when ingested, even in tiny amounts. These are the essential oils you should avoid eating at all costs:
- Eucalyptus Oil While it is a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough and cold products to relieve congestion, eucalyptus oil can be dangerous if ingested in its pure form, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “There are very clear cases of people having toxic effects from ingesting eucalyptus oil in very small amounts,” Dr. Kiefer says. In particular, eucalyptus oil can cause seizures if swallowed, notes the National Capital Poison Control Center.
- Sage Oil Sage oil has a pleasant earthy aroma and has been shown to have antiseptic properties, according to research. However, sage oil has also been found to cause seizures in children, per the National Capital Poison Center.
- Wintergreen Oil Oil of wintergreen is used as a food flavoring in trace amounts but can be dangerous — even deadly — if more than a tiny amount is swallowed. According to the National Capital Poison Center, ingesting wintergreen oil is like swallowing many adult aspirins. This is especially dangerous for children.
It’s also a good idea to avoid any essential oils that haven’t been generally recognized as safe by the FDA. When in doubt, check the list.
How Do You Cook With Essential Oils?
If you’re still interested in experimenting with essential oils in your cooking, here are some guidelines to follow to ensure you’re doing so safely.
- Use a light hand. It may surprise you to learn that you only need one or two drops of essential oil to create a powerful flavor and aroma, Lattin says. A single drop of basil essential oil in a large pot of marinara sauce, for example, will produce a strong flavor, she notes. And once you add an essential oil, it’s tough to undo it, so start with the smallest amount possible and taste the recipe before adding more, Lattin suggests.
- Dilute. Mix the essential oil with a fat source like olive oil, honey, or chicken stock before adding it to the dish. Diluting essential oils in a fatty substance can help distribute them evenly, which may help prevent irritation to the soft tissues of the mouth, throat, and intestines, Lattin notes.
- Stick with GRAS. Lattin recommends only using essential oils included on the FDA’s GRAS list. That way, you know the essential oil you’re adding has already been generally recognized as safe for culinary purposes. Keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, so it is important to do your own research on any products you intend to use.
- Find recipes. Before experimenting with essential oils on your own, find a recipe from a reputable source, such as the
American College of Healthcare Sciences
, that incorporates the essential oil you’re interested in testing. “Experimentation can be fun, but you can end up wasting food or essential oil if it doesn’t turn out to be edible,” Lattin notes. Once you get an idea of what kind of flavor profile an essential oil creates and how much to use, you can start coming up with your recipes, she adds.
While essential oils are traditionally inhaled or applied topically in a massage oil, they can also be used to add flavor and aroma in cooking. To do it safely, stick to essential oils that have been generally recognized as safe for culinary purposes by the FDA, follow a recipe from a reputable source, and limit yourself to one or drops. Never ingest essential oils in their pure form, as doing so has been known to cause negative health effects.