Is it safe to cook with essential oils?

I’ve been involved with essential oils for many years, and so I have a great many friends who use essential oils in many different ways and from many different companies.

So sometimes I get caught off-guard by some of the very passionate opinions of non-essential oil users (and casual essential oil users) on how to safely use essential oils.

Several months ago I was briefly a member of an online group that shared recipes and cooking tips.  A few of my oil-using friends invited me to the group, and I invited a few of my friends, and so on.  After a couple of days, there were quite a few of us who use essential oils in our daily lives, including using Vitality essential oils to flavor foods.

It never occurred to us that we should censor that fact, it’s just a natural part of what we do.

I made some pasta sauce and  I added a drop of Taste of Italy Blend.

Or I made a smoothie and I added a few drops of Orange Vitality.  

It’s about as reflexive as talking about what movie I watched last weekend.

But oh, you should have seen the uproar that followed!  You would have thought we were door-to-door anthrax salespeople!

It was a bit perplexing, but a common theme seemed to emerge:

Ingesting essential oils, even in small amounts in food is dangerous and you should never do it.

Say what?  Based on what facts?

That was curious, and so I decided to go back and review some of the information that I’d read years ago and share it here because there seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between flavoring food with essential oils and taking therapeutic amounts of essential oils internally. (Which is a whole other ball of wax that I’ve examined in other articles).

I was a bit surprised at the reaction of these folks, especially since I thought it was a pretty commonly known fact that the food industry uses essential oils as flavorings in many foods…and we’ve all eaten essential oils, perhaps many, many times.

You’ve been ingesting essential oils for a long time and you didn’t even know it.

I decided to take a little bit of time on a Sunday afternoon to just browse the shelves at my local grocery store.  I didn’t spend much time and our store isn’t very large, it serves a very small community so the selection wasn’t very extensive.  Yet in the short time that I spent looking at food labels, I found a wide variety of foods that all had essential oils being used as flavorings.  I had my phone along so I took some pictures that show a good representation of the wide variety of foods that had oils in them.


Hot Dogs:

Did you know that some foods are flavored with essential oils?

This brand of Organic Beef Hot Dogs had Nutmeg Oil.

Ice Cream:

Many ice creams have peppermint essential oil as an ingredient.

This ice cream had peppermint oil as an ingredient.

Bottled Lemon Juice:

Bottled lemon juice has lemon essential oil

Bottled lemon juice also had lemon oil.

Peppermint Patties:

Peppermint oil flavors pepprmint patties

This popular chocolate and mint candy is made with peppermint oil.

Frozen Orange Chicken:

This frozen Orange Chicken recipe was made with orange oil.

This frozen Orange Chicken recipe was made with orange oil.

Organic Chicken Soup:

Chicken Soup with Black pepper essential oil

This Organic Chicken Soup has black pepper oil as a flavoring.

It didn’t seem to be confined to one quality of food either.  I found essential oils in both organic products and in conventional products.  In addition to the photos I shared above I found essential oils listed as ingredients of lemonade, flavored iced teas, flavoring extracts, breath mints, frozen dinners, and candies.


What does the FDA say about essential oils in food?

While they don’t give a ton of background information on their public site, they do have a list of over 100 essential oils that have been recognized as safe to use in foods.    They also specify that essential oils do not have to be listed as separate ingredients on the label, but can be listed as a natural flavoring on packages.  They established the guidelines for the essential oils and other food additives that were considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in the 1958 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (sections 201(s) and 409).

“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.” SOURCE (emphasis mine)

When you include that possibility that many ingredients listed as natural flavorings may be essential oils, you open up an even wider range of possibilities for foods that contain them.

It would certainly seem that the FDA thinks that it is safe to cook with essential oils, at least as a flavoring.

But it’s under 2% of the finished food product!

Perhaps, but did you ever wonder how much of a homemade finished food product using essential oils is actually essential oils?  What is the actual percentage by volume of essential oil content?

Let’s do some math.

Let’s consider an average 15ml bottle of essential oil.  A 15ml bottle of essential oil is roughly equivalent to 1/2 ounce of essential oil.  That 1/2 ounce bottle of essential oil, on average, contains about 250 drops of essential oil when dripped out using the orifice reducer included on the bottle.

If we extrapolate that out, then a single drop of essential oil is 1/500th of a fluid ounce or 0.2%  (less than a percent) of an ounce by volume.

Example:  How much essential oil is in a sauce?

Let’s assume that I make a pot of pasta sauce.  My normal recipe makes a pot with four cups of pasta sauce in it.

Four cups of pasta sauce is 32 fluid ounces of finished product.

I then add 3 drops of Taste of Italy essential oil blend to the finished product.  That means that 0.01875% essential oil by volume, in other words, less than 2/100ths of a percent of my sauce is actually essential oil.

To put it in non-math terms, if my sauce was the Statue of Liberty (which is 111 feet from foot to top of the torch), then my amount of essential oils would be equivalent to a 1/4 inch stack of coins next to her foot.

Not much at all, is it?

But what about aromatherapy experts?

Do they think it is safe to cook with essential oils?

For this, I turned to very conservative essential oil expert, Valerie Worwood.  Hers was the very first essential oil book I ever owned, and to my knowledge, she’s never endorsed any particular MLM essential oil company (who seem to be unfairly blamed for using oils in foods), so I consider her an unbiased expert on the use of essential oils in foods.

In this book, she includes an entire chapter devoted to the subject of cooking with essential oils.

I’ll share a picture of the table of contents below so you can see how extensively she writes about it:

Is it safe to cook with essential oils? It seems this conservative oil reference thinks so.

The book that these recipes are in was originally published in 1990 in the United Kingdom

She opens the chapter by saying (page 342):

“As flavorants and aromatics essential oils are widely used in the food processing industry, a fact boasted of by advertisers proclaiming that ‘real fruit essences’ or ‘real oil of…’ are included in the product.  They perhaps more than any of us know that modern large-scale commercial production methods rob the ingredients of much of their natural strength.  Essential oils are used to replace the nature that technology took out.    But as well as this, the food industry uses the essential oils to create totally new inventions , such as spearmint gum, peppermint drops, or chocolate oranges.”

It’s fairly clear that even to some conservative aromatherapists using essential oils to flavor recipes is not considered unsafe.

So is it safe to cook with essential oils?

I would say yes, the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that it can indeed be safe to cook with essential oils.  After all, the food industry uses them (and we’ve all already consumed them that way), the FDA regards them as a safe food additive, and even many conservative aromatherapists actively promote flavoring recipes with them.

So feel free to enjoy some delicious food, made with essential oils!

Young Living uses a distinctive labeling term of Vitality oils and a white label to indicate which of their essential oils are appropriate for use in food flavoring. Super simple!

Do you have a favorite recipe that uses essential oils?  Share it (or the link) with us in the comments!

Interested in some of our recipes that include essential oils?  Click to browse them here!

Other articles you may be interested in:

Are essential oils safe to ingest

Are essential oils safe to ingest?

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Are essential oils safe to use in general?

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7 places you should never put essential oils