In the grand scheme of things, there are a lot of very good questions being asked about essential oils and their comparative qualities. One such question that is frequently asked is:
Are Young Living essential oils organic?
It is worth knowing right up front that there are no regulations specifically targeting essential oils in the organic certification process. The standards required to bear the USDA certified organic label were crafted with produce and agricultural products in mind, and not a product such as essential oils.
So what are some of the advantages of a USDA certified organic essential oil?
- A guaranteed minimum standard for growing, including no use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides or herbicides, sewage sludge, GMO seeds (excepting alfalfa as of 2011) , and growth on land which has been free of these farming practices for a minimum of 3 consecutive years before planting with the certified organic crop.
- Maximum tolerances for residual trace contaminants in the certified organic product. In other words, if there is residual pesticides, synthetics, etc. they have to fall beneath a very low threshold.
What are some potential disadvantages of relying primarily on the USDA organic certification when selecting essential oils?
- Since USDA Organic certification is not specific to essential oils, there is no specific quality composition of essential oils mandated by the FDA, even under organic standards. That means that the range of quality in oils bearing the organic label may vary widely based on distillation methods, choice of plant harvest time, length of aging of the source plants, and post-distillation “rectification” or “blending” practices that vary from producer to producer.
- The USDA certification process only relates to the growing conditions and end contamination level, but does not govern the methods used to distill or produce an essential oil. In plain terms, what this can mean is that an oil may have been grown under USDA organic conditions at home or abroad, but if distilled improperly, could have no therapeutic properties. That would make it chemically “pure” but functionally useless.
So, what does Young Living do to ensure premium quality oils with therapeutic (functionally active) composition?
I’ve outlined the nitty-gritty details in this very extensive article, which you may want to read, but to break down the strict assurances that go into Young Living’s Seed to Seal Quality Commitment, I will list some of the high points:
- Young Living’s seeds are only original seed stock, not from modern hybrids, and certainly never GMO’s. Organic certification only restricts most GMOs, but does not ensure the most hardy seed stock.
- Young Living prepares the soil for planting for FIVE years before planting crops for the first time. USDA certification only requires three years of organic growth before a crop can be eligible for organic certification, and does not prescribe any particular method to “prepare the soil.”
- Plants are fed on a Young Living owned or partner farm with worm castings from worm composting, composted organic plant materials and spring or aquifer water, never municipal water supplies. Organic certification only applies to what may NOT be used, not what MUST be used.
- Weeds are controlled with manual weeding and some applications of essential oils.
- As funny as it may seem, Young Living only allows employees who love their jobs to work with the oils during growth and distillation. No cursing or bad language is allowed around the plants. That may not matter to some people, but that is the lengths that they go to make sure that the plants are cultivated in the best environment possible.
- These standards all apply on Young Living owned farms, partner farms, and exclusive growers. Partners and exclusive growers are visited regularly and monitored for strict adherence to the Young Living standards. In other words, the standards are always the same, no matter what part of Young Living produces or sources the oils.
- Young Living’s harvests essential oil-producing plants at the peak time for producing the most therapeutically complete oil. This means that plant growth and weather conditions are carefully monitored determining the proper time for harvest. This requires a significant amount of skill and knowledge. Additional testing determines the levels of oil in the plant at any given time. USDA organic certification does not require any of these steps.
- Certain plants have to age an amount of time, either in the fields, or under cover to reach peak oil value. Distilling on site is key to make sure that this step of the process produces the best quality oil. As the plant material ages before distillation, samples are taken and tested to find the precise timing of distillation. USDA organic certification does not address this step.
- Steam distillation and direct pressing are the methods of extraction for the majority of essential oils. Each oil is distilled for a unique length of time in order to extract all the vital botanical components. In some cases, some oils must be in the distilling chamber for a minimum of twelve hours for all components to transfer from the plant material to the distilled oil. Companies can theoretically market an oil as organic and could distill for less time than necessary to produce a complete oil. This could produce an oil that smells similar, but has less critical components.
- Young Living performs tests on the oils while they are distilling and post-distillation to make sure that the oil was distilled properly. If the oil composition is substandard they dispose of it. They don’t sell it, and they certainly don’t broker it for resale to another company.
- Following distillation, Young Living tests each batch at their state of the art essential oil laboratory in Spanish Fork, Utah. Additional tests are run by third party labs to make sure that all oils are both completely pure and contain the necessary active therapeutic components.
- Most other companies who test oils, rely primarily on GC/MS testing which may detect component levels, but cannot tell if those components are botanical or synthetic in origin. This leaves the end-user with the possibility that some components may have been added after the fact and not be a true product of distillation. Young Living performs a wide range of tests to both detect the origin of oil compounds and detelltale markers of even the most subtle manipulation. The battery of tests run by Young Living exceeds the base-line testing levels required to earn organic certifications.
- Young Living meets or exceeds the ISO and AFNOR essential oil standards of quality as established by their regulatory agencies. The USDA is not an essential oil regulatory agency, and the organic label, again, only governs growing conditions, not oil composition. Young Living’s laboratory equipment was actually calibrated to test to AFNOR standards.
So why doesn’t Young Living just get the USDA stamp of organic approval if they exceed the standards?
Well, without being an official spokesperson for Young Living, I can only share the information that I have found in my research about essential oils and explain from that perspective.
Essential oil cultivation is a massive global operation that spans every continent (save Antarctica). Since the USDA’s organic standards only apply to US growers, the majority of essential oil sources simply do not fall under their direct jurisdiction. Additionally, regulatory standards vary widely by country, so having a uniform quality standard that transcends locations, and that applies to all of Young Living’s products makes more sense from a practical standpoint.
The USDA organic standards were not designed with essential oil quality in mind. In fact, for an oil to have therapeutic activity it is a given that it should be grown under organic conditions and be free of synthetics or chemical residues to give the most benefit.
Unfortunately, the USDA organic standards only set the base level of purity, and don’t address the other steps necessary (as described above) to create quality oil. Think about it as the essential oil world’s equivalent of the difference between organic lettuce and organic toaster pastries. Both may be considered “organic”, but few would contend that they are equal in quality.
So, based on the quality control measures that Young Living practices, they far exceed the scope of organic requirements.
Since their personal quality requirements are so much more detailed, it is understandable that Young Living doesn’t pursue that certification. It is also helpful to remember that those standards were not created with essential oil quality in mind, and so have limited relevance.
To give an example, it would almost be like parking a Ferrari next to a Ford Taurus and then explaining that since they meet the same minimum governmental safety standards that they also offer an equal driving experience. The Ferrari’s claim to fame is not its adherence to a minimum safety standard (which it clearly does), its prestige comes from providing a superior driving experience. The Ferrari isn’t going to highlight the minimum standards that it meets, it is going to highlight the exceptional quality that sets it apart.
It’s also important to note, that many serious essential oil users are looking for noticeable results when using therapeutic aromatherapy. With this level of expectation, it is incumbent upon the consumer to understand how a quality essential oil is produced, and not simply settle for a minimum standard of purity given by an agency with no experience in essential oil quality.
To receive appreciable effects, you must have oils that are genuine and complete, not just simply pure. An educated consumer will pursue the best possible process instead of simply a general label.
Update September, 2015:
I have been able to recently get some specific commentary on this from two Young Living sources. The first is a comment made in a conversation on the meaning of organic certification with respect to essential oils by Seed to Seal director and analytical chemist Dr. Cole Wooley who said:
“First, the term “organic” is being redefined by big food/beverage/grocery corporations. Second, there is an “organic” label that can be placed on essential oils. Third, Young Living has chosen not to place this label on our oils because of the added expense. Fourth, the oils from YL are the highest quality possible. This is the Seed to Seal difference.”~Dr. Woolley
Secondly, from the Young Living Member virtual office on September 2, 2015:
“Young Living prides itself on offering the purest and most effective essential oils possible, and we are often asked if our oils are certified organic. The organic certification, while important, is far from the only standard of quality by which to judge essential oils. Young Living practices a unique Seed to Seal® quality process that goes beyond the current organic standard in many ways.
At Young Living, we don’t just rely on others to verify the purity of our oils. We work directly with our farms, growers, and distillers to ensure the quality, integrity, and authenticity of every product we produce. Our passion and commitment is to produce 100-percent pure, unadulterated essential oils that retain all of the natural constituents and therapeutic properties nature intended.Our Seed to Seal process ensures the purest therapeutic-grade essential oils through careful monitoring of every step of essential oil production—from the time a seed is sourced until the oil is sealed in the bottle.
Every batch of our essential oils, whether cultivated on our own farms or by one of our carefully vetted partner growers, is rigorously tested and subjected to careful review through every step of production and meets or exceeds industry safety and purity standards. Young Living’s dedication to quality ensures that we provide pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils with the complete, optimal blend of plant constituents to provide maximum potency and results.
As millions of satisfied members and customers across the globe can testify, Young Living sets the standard for purity and quality in the essential oil industry. While standards and guidelines can vary and be modified, our dedication to providing the safest, most beneficial essential oils in the world will never change.”