As someone with a chronic health condition, I’ve heard a lot about how all I really need are essential oils. This comes from a place of love (usually, though it sometimes comes from a place of “please buy this from me or my upline is going to be pissed”) and from people who mean well, but that doesn’t make it any less grating. I still smile, say thank you, and accept the advice in the spirit in which it was given — a desire to help me be healthy again. As hard as it is to continually hear that I’m only suffering through medication and medical procedures because I haven’t properly tried oils/yoga/meditation/green juice/coffee enemas, I can’t really get mad over it.
Sometimes, though, this advice crosses the line between “well meaning, but misinformed” to “please stop telling people to do this.”
That line is when people begin telling me I should be eating essential oils.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Sure, some oils are routinely used in food — by commercial food operations, who use industrial food-grade oils to flavor batches of food intended to feed hundreds at a time — but this is not what I’m talking about.
You’ve probably experienced this scenario: You’re on Facebook or Instagram, minding your own business, and you get a message. Not just any message, oh no. It’s a friend you haven’t spoken to since high school, and they want to tell you about their wonderful new business opportunity. One look at their profile tells you all you need to know: their feed is hashtagged out the wazoo, and replete with photos featuring crockpots of soup, fresh-baked pies, and water bottles glistening with condensation… All serving as backdrops for tiny, all-too-familiar amber bottles.
My primary gripe with putting essential oils in food comes from two things:
- What’s actually in essential oils.
- Deceptive marketing tactics (and those who uncritically repeat them).
There’s too much oil in the oil.
Look at it this way. Oil is… well, oil. This is why is needs to be diluted for use — it doesn’t mix with water, and will sit, undiluted, on your skin/in your esophagus/wherever else it touches and burn the living crap out of you if you aren’t careful. Adding a few drops of oil to a meal without a sufficient volume of liquid fat (or an emulsifying agent), for example, may not end up flavoring the meal. It will, however, set up one poor bastard for one hell of a flavor adventure.
Essential oils are also highly concentrated. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon or tablespoon of rosemary, for example, this is not going to be answered by using rosemary essential oil instead. It takes a tremendous amount of plant matter to yield a comparatively tiny amount of essential oil (which is also why they’re not exactly as sustainable or green as many oil sellers would have you believe, but that’s a subject for another day). Not only that, but, by not using the whole herb when it is called for, you’re missing out on the compounds that don’t get released as oil. Anything water-soluble is lost to the hydrosol during distillation, and doesn’t end up in the finished oil at all.
Oils are more expensive, less safe, and don’t even give you all of the flavor or benefits of the whole herb.
That’s not what “purity” means.
Sometimes you’ll hear multi-level marketing reps defending essential oil consumption by saying something like, “My essential oils say they’re safe to use internally!” or “My essential oils are more pure than the competition, therefore they’re safe!” This is a bit of marketing jargon likely passed down to them from their upline that misses one obvious issue: The reason essential oils aren’t safe to eat is that there’s too much essential oil in them.
I mean, theoretically the less-pure oils might be safer, because at least then you’re slightly less likely to OD on the equivalent of eight pounds of lavender in one sitting. In this context, “pure” does not equal “safe to consume.”
So is it medicine, or not?
One thing that I find fascinating is the discussion about whether essential oils are medicine or not. Sure, they’re required to say they can’t treat, cure, or prevent any disease, but there is still a lot of historical evidence of herbs and herbal distillates used as medicine before isolating, refining, and synthesizing active compounds became the pharmaceutical standard. So, some people who doubt the safety or efficacy of a pharmaceutical approach will reach for an essential oil bottle over a prescription slip.
And then reach for that bottle again when they want to cook a meal. And again for a relaxing bath. And again for an air freshener.
So are essential oils medicine, or aren’t they? If they are effective at treating anything, they are medicine and should at least be treated with the respect you’d afford a bottle of gummy vitamins. Essential oils don’t work through fairy dust, they contain compounds that act on processes in the body just like medicines do. This is why the same oils that can help dry up a blemish or disinfect a cut are outright neurotoxic to animals — differences in the way these compounds are metabolized yield dramatically different results from species to species.
Essential oils work therapeutically because those compounds are concentrated within them. If “the dose makes the poison,” why use a concentrated form of an herb instead of what a recipe actually calls for? I don’t drink Nyquil because I like the way it tastes, so I’m not going to put concentrated plant compounds in my food or water for flavoring.
Less is more.
Overexposure to essential oils is definitely something you want to avoid. Some oils can have unwanted effects if they’re used on a daily basis, and some are known to cause sensitization with repeated exposure.
While sensitization can happen at any time, the risk is increased with certain oils and improper dilution. Most reactions cause localized skin rashes, but some particularly unfortunate people will go into anaphylactic shock. It’s not at all uncommon for aromatherapists, for example, to become sensitized to even the safest oils purely due to daily exposure. This isn’t meant to scare anyone away from using essential oils, but to underline the importance of treating them like what they are — a highly concentrated form of plant-based volatile compounds.
So, why do some people advocate eating essential oils?
I want to make one thing clear — it isn’t doctors or certified health practitioners that I’m taking issue with, here. These are people who know what they’re doing, and are both aware of and prepared to weigh the risks (adverse reactions, sensitization) against the potential benefits to their patients. They also generally don’t push adding essential oils to food. A health practitioner might recommend enteric-coated capsules of peppermint oil to someone with IBS, to ensure that standardized levels of the therapeutic compounds in the oil are delivered where they are needed (instead of just irritating the crap out of the esophagus because lemon oil is literally never going to mix properly with your bottled water, Taylor). Actual medical usage isn’t the problem. I mean, I’ve got a fat stack of FDgard samples from my gastroenterologist, and they’re basically coated caraway oil and menthol.
The thing is, I use essential oils on a consistent basis. I even make things that I give away, trade, or sell to other people. It’s safe to say that I go through more essential oil than your average person, but, even so, a bottle will last me for a while.
That’s bad news for an essential oil rep. The more ways they can find to sell oil, the better. People don’t make new bottles of homemade spray cleaner every day. They don’t take long, luxurious baths every day. They don’t need to make their own herbal salves or cold-process soaps every day.
You know what they do do every day? Eat and drink.
Suddenly, the bottle of lemon oil that could last all year only lasts for two months. Tell people that only X-brand of essential oil is pure enough to eat, and the oil rep can lock in a customer base that will not only keep returning to them for the “purest” oil, but go through it much faster than they otherwise would (and likely end up joining the rep’s downline in order to save money). All of these things add up to more profit for the MLM.
People are fond of essential oils as a “safer,” “greener” alternative to things they mistrust. Big Pharma, spray cleaners, air fresheners, personal care products, all of these are multi-billion dollar industries, and that breeds mistrust. Businesses don’t just rake in billions without considerable effort and a strong profit drive. If they are profit-driven, how often does the safety of their customers take a back seat to money?
In 2016, the global essential oils market was valued at over $6.6B USD. Of that, doTerra alone pulls in over $1B in sales annually.
Please don’t eat essential oils.