Don’t eat your essential oils please people!
I spotted these in town today and just had to give them a try, not least because I was intrigued to find out what coconut flakes and lime oil taste like together but also because eating essential oils usually isn’t cool.
There seem to be a few delicious sounding essential-oil-containing recipes doing the rounds on social media at the moment and many of them sound VERY appealing and that worries me.
Here in Australia treating essential oils as ‘food’ is illegal and for good reason. When handled incorrectly there is a chance that the general public could find themselves with burned oesophagus’ or worse still, poisonings*. The fact that these recipes don’t offer even the slightest hint at these contra-indications is grossly negligent without the added bonus of the whole practice being illegal anyway. So many layers of wrong here! Shame on those EO companies promoting it!
But we can and do eat essential oils as I’ve shown above so what’s the story?
Essential oils that are destined to become flavours in your food must pass through strict GC analysis and standardised to become ‘food grade’. Food grade essential oils may not be 100% pure in the sense that they came from one batch of plant matter from one field, as achieving the required specification that way is quite tricky (although not impossible). To ensure food grade oils for flavours are ‘in spec’ aroma chemicals may be added to them or they may be processed to remove certain off notes or flavours.
Logistically EO flavours are handled differently, food laws are usually quite strict, much more so than cosmetic or industrial standards. Food grade essential oils (AKA Natural Flavours) would be processed in a food-standard environment and warehoused and packaged as such. This might lead people to feel that Food Grade essential oils are of superior quality and purer to regular EO’s but that is not a good way of looking at it, really it is true to say that food grade essential oils (natural flavours) are best suited for food and not aromatherapy or skin care. That’s all.
Financially food grade essential oils are taxed differently as they are for consumption and so import duties and taxes are often lower for foodstuff vs cosmetic or aromatherapy (which isn’t classified in the way that pharmaceuticals are). So you could expect food grade essential oils to be cheaper because of this. I’m not sure if that is the case as I’ve never hunted them down to buy them.
Safety wise there are only a few of the many different essential oils on the market that are legally permitted as flavours and then only under strict conditions. Things like Rose, Mint (various), Citrus, Eucalyptus and lavender are most common along with Rosemary, Star Anise, Clove, Ginger and Pimento. If you buy natural flavourings that are essential oil derived at retail level they are pretty much always dispersed into a solvent such as alcohol or glycerin to both enhance their solubility in whatever you are flavouring and thus decrease the potential for them burning your throat or guts.
Essential oils are oils and are oil soluble. They are also pretty soluble in ethanol (alcohol) usually which means it is common to find natural flavours listing alcohol as an ingredient. The problem with regular, aromatherapy grade essential oils is that they will not mix into your water-based product and will instead form a film around the top ready to attach to your lips upon ingestion. This issue of solubility is a big one, in fact it is the main reason why oils that are otherwise pretty ‘safe’ to use as flavours can be anything but! The average person at home reading a lovely essential-oil enriched recipe won’t necessarily think of that and might have no way of recognising that the essential oils have actually just floated to the top.
Not all laws seem logical and sensible but the one that says ‘thou shall not eat your essential oils’ is actually quite sane.
PS: If you have a pure, food grade essential oil at home and it dissolves straight into water ‘like a charm’ it is not a pure essential oil.
* Please note that this blog post was updated on 9th March to make sure people understood that this article is in reference to the general public using essential oils as food flavourings and not the Aromatherapy industry, that is a separate matter. Thanks.