by Lisa Profera, MD
Anyone who knows me knows that I love to cook. When I discovered that I can add essential oils to my food, I was not only excited, but I quickly realized that it was more than a win-win situation. There are many compelling reasons to add essential oils (EOs) to your cooking repertoire. Not only can they amp up the flavor of any dish, they will simultaneously deliver numerous health benefits while being very economical. At a fraction of the cost of herbs, they are 100% natural — no artificial flavors, colors, or chemicals.
Please understand that not all brands of EOs are safe for ingestion; the vast majority are not. Don’t think that you can add just any EO to your favorite recipe. Essential Oils are volatile aromatic compounds derived from various parts of plants (roots, bark, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits) from steam distillation or cold pressing. When it comes to quality and safety, I only use EOs that are Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade® (CPTG). This is the gold standard of quality control for essential oils. Since the industry is not regulated, the consumer must find an essential oil producer that is dedicated to purity. As a consequence, there is a huge variation in quality and a fair amount of adulteration in the market. The labeling on some brands can be deceiving, even fraudulent.
So what do the labels mean? A savvy consumer should not only read what a label says, but she should also understand what it doesn’t say. Some companies may claim to be selling an EO that is 100% pure when in fact all this may mean is that there may be a few drops of pure oil and the rest is a filler (which may be composed of turpentine, petroleum-based chemicals, other solvents, or synthetics). It is also quite common for contaminants such as pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and heavy metals to be present. Even those labeled as organic can contain a “tolerable level” of such contaminants according to USDA Organic Standards. A product that is designated as “aromatherapy grade” is intended for aromatic use or massage, as it only contains 2-5% essential oil and the rest is filler. If you read the label and it states “not for internal use” or “for aromatic or topical use only”, that should raise a red flag in your mind. If you read the fine print on something innocuous like lemon oil, and it says “toxic if ingested” or “call poison control immediately if accidentally ingested,” then you should run away screaming. Even if you do not intend to ingest such oils, they can still enter your system through your skin or lungs. What else is in there to make it toxic? You can find such oils even in “trusted” stores such as Whole Foods. You certainly should not shop for your oils at Walmart or on Amazon or eBay. The market is rife with cheap copies and products that have been tampered with.
As a physician, my mantra is “to do no harm.” I can only recommend essential oils that have successfully completed the rigorous battery of 9 biochemical tests and third-party controls that classify them as CPTG® essential oils. These oils are responsibly and sustainably sourced in their native soils. They are harvested and distilled at the peak of flavor. Since there are zero contaminants tolerated, they are better than organic. Consistency from batch to batch not only ensures superior flavor, but I also use these oils as whole plant medicine. I know that each bottle of lavender for example, is going to have the same ratios of linalool and linalyl acetate that give it its calming and soothing properties.
If you are confused about where to reliably get CPTG® Essential Oils, I am happy to help guide you. For more information, you can also go to my website: http://www.projuvu.com/
Once you acquire quality oils, adding them to food or drink is perfectly safe. EOs appropriate for ingestion will have a Supplement Facts label on them. They add intense flavor (30-50% more concentrated than herbs) while being naturally sugar-free, calorie-free, and preservative-free. As long as you keep them out of extreme heat or direct sunlight, they have a very long shelf life (unlike dried or fresh herbs). Most are stored in amber glass bottles for this reason. There is substantial documentation of safe internal usage of EOs historically and in modern times. They are classified as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) by the FDA.
I love using EOs in cooking because they are concentrated, convenient, consistent, and inexpensive. They also allow me to experiment and be creative in a different way. I can look at a recipe and think about how to use EOs instead of or in addition to spices, herbs, zest, or extracts for a fraction of the cost. Plus I get the medicinal benefits as an added bonus! This is especially useful in the winter, when fresh ingredients are scarce and expensive. For herbs such as basil, rosemary and oregano, 1 drop of essential oil equals 1 teaspoon of dried herb or 1 tablespoon of fresh. Use 1 drop of lemon essential oil instead of 1 teaspoon of lemon zest. For a comprehensive conversion table, email me.
In general, it is wise to add EOs for flavoring at the end of the recipe or the cooking process. Since they are volatile compounds, they evaporate quickly when simmered in a sauce or soup. Turn the heat off and add EOs to taste to finish your dish. Remember, EOs are highly concentrated and sometimes even 1 drop can be too much flavor. For strong, “hot” oils such as cinnamon, clove, oregano, thyme, cilantro and others, I recommend using the “toothpick method.” Simply insert a wooden toothpick into the orifice of the essential oil bottle, and then invert the bottle to coat the toothpick. Remove the toothpick and swirl it into your soup, sauce, dip, or olive oil. You can always add more if needed. Consult the flavor guide in this Cooking with Essential Oils eBook for tips and recipes for many types of EOs: citrus, spices, herbals, mints, and florals. (For free download: http://media.doterra.com/us/en/ebooks/cooking-with-essential-oils.pdf ).
When using EOs, always use glass, ceramic, or stainless steel cookware, containers, and bowls to prepare, cook with, and eat or drink out of. Some EOs (especially citrus) can break down plastics and other petrochemicals and you certainly don’t want to ingest that. I love adding peppermint and wild orange in my glass or stainless steel water bottle. It is calorie-free, refreshing, and energizing. One drop each of lemon and ginger added to a cup of herbal tea or just hot water is delicious and also soothing to your stomach. If I am preparing something Italian, Indian, or Thai, I’ve got my oils handy. No need to run to the store for lemongrass or other missing ingredients!
The many health benefits of EO ingestion will have to be the topic of a future article. They promote wellness and wellbeing. Some have additional anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and detoxing properties. Different oils support our different biological systems. Produced by plants for protection, their small molecules are easily absorbed and recognized by our systems as being natural. They have been used by humans for millennia and are the subject of numerous medical research studies today.
If you are a foodie and a fan of flavor, try adding essential oils to your next meal and amp it up a few notches. Create and experiment. Get the health benefits too. Let me know what you come up with.