The snake oil salesmen who plied their trade at medicine shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries got away with selling their patent products for one simple reason: there were no laws governing how they advertised their goods.
After the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the landscape changed. The hucksters had to be more careful about their marketing and labeling. One brand of snake oil, for example, changed its labels to read, “Miller’s Snake Oil: For years called snake oil, but does not contain snake oil.”
The reason snake oil salesmen could run wild for decades is the same reason for the confusion you might experience when trying to understand different grades of essential oils: there are no enforceable standards or grading systems.
No one — not the Food and Drug Administration, not states, not the industry — governs or regulates the use of terms such as “food grade essential oils” and “therapeutic grade essential oils.”
Essential oils aren’t like organic products, which have to be certified by the USDA before they use the phrase “certified organic” or even the word “organic” on their labels. When it comes to figuring out which essential oils to buy or use, you have to trust sellers to describe them accurately.
You also have to know the important facts about essential oils, and why ingesting them is usually a very bad idea.
We can help with that.
What Are Food Grade Essential Oils?
Let’s start with the term “food grade.”
The FDA doesn’t actually classify essential oils — or anything else — as “food grade.” It lists “appropriately regulated indirect additives” and categorizes foods and other items as “Generally Recognized as Safe” [GRAS] for human consumption when used for their “intended purpose.” That regulation may not be much comfort, but it’s as good as it gets.
“Intended purpose” is an interesting phrase. Consider the fact that a manufacturer using a tiny amount of an essential oil as a flavoring for the mass production of food isn’t the same thing as a consumer drinking an entire bottle of the same essential oil. The first might be a legitimate intended purpose; the second most certainly is not.
The example often used to illustrate this is mustard essential oil, which is classified as GRAS. It’s utilized regularly in the food industry in everything from sauces to pickling spice blends. But ingested directly, it’s one of the most poisonous essential oils there is.
That brings us back to “food grade,” the term that’s often used but not legally defined.
Equipment manufacturers have used the phrase to describe materials that are fit for human consumption or safe to come in contact with food. More recently, some essential oil companies (many of whom sell only on Amazon or similar venues) have adopted the term to describe oils that can be used in small quantities as a food additive. Still, others claim that, to be “food grade,” essential oils have to be sold as food, with a nutritional facts label.
You’ll get widely varying opinions from doctors, aromatherapists and industry spokesmen on whether any essential oils are indeed edible. Doctors in particular say no essential oils should be ingested, except under the supervision of a physician with experience in aromatherapy.
But there are some essential oils that are generally accepted as safe additives for cooking when used in extremely small amounts, as small as one drop. They include spearmint oil, grapefruit oil, peppermint oil, lemon oil, cinnamon bark oil and lemongrass oil.
You can also find generally-accepted “food-safe” essential oils in spray form, since they’ve already been heavily diluted. These products are quite difficult to find, but there are some options made by companies such as Simply Beyond with herbal oils like oregano, thyme and rosemary. Several companies, including doTERRA, market essential oil blends specifically for internal use, even though doTERRA received an FDA warning for making unsubstantiated claims about the products it sells.
So what can be concluded from all of this?
- “Food grade” essential oils aren’t tested, approved or certified for internal use by the government.
- The jury’s still out on just how safe or effective they are to ingest.
- You have to be very careful how you use them if you choose to do so.
Most aromatherapy and health care experts will tell you that instead of “food grade” oils, you’re much better off using essential oils topically or in a diffuser.
Should you use therapeutic grade essential oils for that? Well, there’s an issue there as well.
What Are Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils?
If you’re a natural-born skeptic, or have been reading carefully, you know what’s coming next.
There’s no such legal classification as “certified pure therapeutic grade essential oils” or “therapeutic quality essential oils.” As mentioned earlier, the FDA and industry groups don’t govern or regulate the use of those terms. Once again, controversial companies like Young Living (also warned by the FDA for false claims) use the phrases simply for marketing. (There’s no such thing as “aromatherapy grade oils,” either.)
However, reputable companies like Public Goods, which use that type of language, do it to convey important facts about their products.
In fact, Public Goods and other high-end vendors are aiming to distinguish their essential oils from the lower-quality budget oils that may be watered down with oils made from nuts or seeds, or made synthetically. By contrast, these high-quality essential oils have real therapeutic attributes:
- Created solely from plant material, usually through a steam distillation process (clove, tea tree, chamomile and frankincense are among the oils created by distillers, but other processes like cold-pressing are sometimes used for bergamot and citrus oils)
- Pure essential oils, with only the highest-quality carrier oils used to dilute them so they’re safe to apply to the skin
- Properly bottled, stored and tested by the manufacturer to assure that they are all GC/MS unadulterated natural oils and to identify their components
- Produced by a company with a reputation for selling quality oils
Choosing the Right Essential Oil for You
That’s a lot of information. But how do you find the best essential oils for aromatherapy?
Do some research and reading. Determine the most reputable essential oil vendors, and learn how they create their products and what goes into them. Also check out the labels on essential oil bottles (or the FAQs on websites) to look for ingredient lists and testing results.
Just as importantly, don’t rely solely on marketing phrases like “food grade” and “therapeutic grade.” The key to buying high-quality essential oils is understanding exactly what you’re buying, rather than trusting slogans that have no real legal or regulatory meaning — and that means buying from reputable suppliers such as Public Goods.
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