These days pretty much everyone is touting the benefits of essential oils, from curing migraines to helping fight cancer. Essential oils are an ancient practice experiencing a major modern revival, and it’s easy to understand why: While the efficacy of some essential oils is largely unstudied, others have been shown to provide some serious health benefits in solid, peer-reviewed studies. We know lavender oil can improve your sleep quality and reduce anxiety, for instance. But are there more benefits to essential oils than just dabbing them on your wrist or putting a few drops in a diffuser?
Enter edible essential oils. While some essential oils should absolutely never be consumed internally, others may have a whole host of health benefits when ingested.
What are the benefits of edible essential oils?
Essential oils can be great for your health, and the benefits vary based on the properties of the essential oil themselves (which makes sense, given that different plants tend to do… different things. Just think of the difference between aspirin and opium!). Studies show that some essential oils can help reduce inflammation, prevent the spread of germs, and even potentially fight off drug-resistant bacterial infections.
“According to the Food and Drug Administration of America, there are dozens of essential oils that are Generally Recognized As Safe for Human Consumption,” explains Lindsey Elmore, PharmD, BCPS. “These essential oils are included in everything from chewing gum to soda, candies, and more.”
From soothing the digestive system to increasing immunity, there are a lot of claims about ingesting essential oils that can be difficult to swim through. And while essential oils might not be a miracle cure, they can certainly boost your health and sense of well-being.
How can you tell which are “food-grade” essential oils?
“While the essential oils labeled for ingestion and topical application are generally the exact same essential oil, the labeling is certainly more than a marketing ploy,” Elmore says. “The FDA bans the labeling of a substance for simultaneous use as both a cosmetic and a dietary supplement. Therefore an essential oil cannot be labeled for use topically, aromatically, and for consumption as a dietary supplement. The FDA also governs how you can talk about essential oils based on how they are labeled.”
This means that you should definitely do your research before using an essential oil. Not all topical essential oils are safe for internal use and vice versa. And despite claims that essential oils are safe for internal consumption, there’s no official system for telling which essential oils are safest.
“There is no official essential oil grading system or regulatory body that provides a ‘therapeutic’ vs. ‘food grade’ rating,” explains Nada Milosavljevic, M.D., founder of Sage Tonic. “What can be delegated to foods is GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) for human consumption.”
Just because there are nutrition facts on a bottle doesn’t make it safe for consumption either. According to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, these so-called “therapeutic essential oils” aren’t necessarily better than others because—more often than not—the labeling is simply a marketing tactic. For example, doTERRA markets its essential oils as “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade,” but the certification is simply a process the company invented and registered as a trademark. Does that mean doTERRA’s essential oils are more or less safer than its competitors, like Young Living? Nope, but it does mean that—when it comes to essential oils—there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
What are some common edible essential oils and how do you use them?
Not all essential oils are safe to ingest, but common edible essential oils can be taken in three ways—in food, in a capsule, or by direct consumption. “To protect the body from damage, use small amounts of essential oils that are specifically labeled for ingestion,” Elmore says. It’s also important to dilute them with a carrier oil like olive oil—pure essential oils are almost always too strong to ingest directly.
If you’re looking to start using edible essential oils, Elmore recommends cooking with them. She says to begin with those you recognize as foods, like lemon, lime, basil, thyme, and cinnamon. “Essential oils can be used as food flavoring for both sweet and savory foods,” Elmore says. For example, you can add peppermint essential oil to a brownie or put lavender in lemonade. And oregano and thyme can be used in a marinade for vegetables or fish.
“If you have never used them in a recipe, you may consider dipping a toothpick in the essential oil and swirling into the solution at the end of the cooking process or immediately prior to baking,” she says. “A little goes a long way, and one drop too many can easily ruin a recipe.”
And be sure to test them—”especially ‘hot’ oils like lemongrass, cinnamon, or clove,” Elmore says. “If ever an essential oil is too hot on your tongue, be sure to add fatty oil such as coconut, almond, olive, etc. Water will make the hot sensation worse and should not be used.”
Oregano Essential Oil
Oregano essential oil touts several benefits and is shown to possess antibacterial and antiviral properties. Even better? In early studies, oregano proved to be effective even against certain drug-resistant fungal infections.
However it’s important to note that many of these studies were done in vitro, meaning the tests took place under a microscope, not on human subjects. And while that doesn’t mean oregano isn’t beneficial, it does mean that those benefits are largely untested on people.
Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon is another popular essential oil that can be ingested. It has antibacterial properties, and some studies suggest that it could be developed as a potential preventative or therapeutic treatment for various oral diseases.
“Oils like lemon, cinnamon, peppermint, and orange can be used in cooking or added (in moderation) to various recipes, fruit drink blends, and teas,” Milosavljevic says. “Typically that is using a drop or two.”
But remember that different methods of using essential oils can impact the body in different ways, so always be careful: While it might be OK to put 5 or 6 drops of lemon essential oil in a diffuser, you wouldn’t want to use the same amount in your water bottle.
Peppermint Essential Oil
Peppermint essential oil is super versatile and can be used both topically (with caution) and internally. Studies show it can improve athletic performance after a single oral dose, and it’s also great for digestion.
“Peppermint essential oil can be used to soothe the gastrointestinal system after a meal,” Elmore explains. “The smooth muscle-relaxant and analgesic properties also extend to the lower GI tract, and therefore we can market peppermint essential oil labeled for ingestion as a daily dietary supplement that supports gastrointestinal comfort.”
Are there any safety concerns with essential oils?
One of the common misconceptions with essential oils is that because they are natural, they’re also safe. This is a dangerous line of thinking that can lead to some serious problems, especially since not all essential oils are safe to ingest (or use topically).
The FDA warns that many plants contain materials that can be toxic and irritating and can potentially cause allergic reactions. It explains that while certain oils—like cumin or some citrus oils—are generally safe for consumption, applying them to the skin can actually be dangerous.
“An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety,” the FDA reminds consumers. “For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic.”
The FDA does have a list of essential oils and natural extracts that are generally recognized as safe for human consumption, but you should still proceed with caution.
“There is a lot of bad press online about the dangers of consuming essential oils, and really this comes down to the dose,” Elmore says. “Essential oils are very concentrated extracts of plant materials, and overconsumption is discouraged. Based on my research, I strongly discourage anyone from ingesting more than 1 mL of any essential oil at a given time, and encourage much smaller doses, such as 1 to 2 drops.”
As with all things, make sure you do your research before you try something new. While essential oils might offer a lot of benefits, there’s also a lot of misinformation online, and unknown allergic reactions are more commonplace than you might think.
“Each person’s physiology is unique,” Milosavljevic adds. “What might be appropriate for one EO user might be a dangerous treatment for someone else.”
If you have any questions, ask your doctor for guidance. Edible essential oils might offer some worthwhile benefits, but they can also be incredibly dangerous. Always be careful with what you put in your body, even if it’s natural.
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs, and Pluto is still a planet in her heart. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.