Would you be surprised to know that the majority of the essential oils extracted from plants is primarily used in food, flavoring, and preservatives, with only a small percentage for its therapeutic properties in aromatherapy? Well, it’s true! This is, perhaps, why there is so much confusion about whether or not it is safe or proper to place essential oils in our food and water/beverages.
Essential oils are used in a variety of ways that many consumers are not even aware of such as:
*Distilled alcoholic beverages
*Natural food additives in food preparation
*Meat preservation (utilizing their antioxidant capabilities)
*Used as a coating for food packaging films to enhance the shelf life of the food
There is one major missing link in all of this, the aromatics that are used in these applications, are not the same as the essential oils as we know them to be. What do I mean by this? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Aromatics In The Food And Beverage Industry
Consumer essential oils are not appropriate for use as food and beverage flavoring. What is being used in the food and beverage industry is absolutes, oleoresin extracts, and liquid CO2’s (carbon dioxide extracts).
Absolutes are extracts used in flavoring. They are extracted from the fragile flowering plant material by using a solvent like hexane (1). Absolutes are also frequently used in perfumery.
Oleoresins are prepared the same way as absolutes but use the dried herb and spice.
CO2’s is where the current excitement is in the industry, and is quickly finding it’s way into the aromatherapy world thanks to pioneers like Mark Webb from Australia and Madeleine Kerkhof-Knapp Hayes from the Netherlands. There are three types of extracts of CO2’s: liquid subcritical CO2, select CO2, and complete or total CO2.
Unlike steam distillation, CO2 extraction is performed by using carbon dioxide at varying temperatures and pressures. Once the plant material is extracted, the CO2 returns to its gaseous state and what you are left with is the CO2 extract. These extracts are very rich, are much closer to the true plant, are richer in flavor and color, and in most cases have a much longer shelf life than the essential oil counterpart, without chemical alterations (2).
CO2 extraction has been around for decades; the use of liquid CO2 for extraction of fruit juice concentrates was reported as early as 1939 (3).
Absolutes and oleoresins are typically deterpenated (4) or rectified (5). Deterpination increases the bioavailability of the oils; rectification removes possible impurities. These are the substances being used in the food and beverage industry. They are cleaner and safer. What is being used is not the essential oil as we know them and for good reason. These methods are what make them safe for human consumption in food and beverage.
Aromatics in Beverages
Folded Citrus Oils
Folded oils may also be a new term for you. These oils are what are commonly used in beverages. A folded oil has been fractionated to remove the terpenes. This process of fractionation is when an oil is re-distilled to remove unwanted isolates, in this case limonene (6). Removing the terpenes makes them safer for consumption in beverages. This does remove the basic therapeutic properties, but is useful for flavoring.
Lemon-lime sodas use folded essential oils from lemon, lime, neroli, and orange; and orange sodas are made from concentrates containing folded orange oil as the major component. Because these oils are hydrophobic, a soda is really a very dilute oil-in-water suspension. Therefore, the concentrate must be presented as a concentrated oil-in-water emulsion (7).
Again, these are not the same as the oils we use aromatically, and are done in a very specific emulsion, not placing a drop of essential oil in a glass of water.
Essential Oils Rich In Limonene Dropped Into Your Water
What are the issues with dropping limonene rich citrus oils in your water? When you add a drop of essential oil to a glass of water it doesn’t blend/mix with the water. Essential oils will sit right on top of the water, therefore will be the first thing to hit your lips and delicate tissues in your mouth.
The first signs of distress may be mouth and throat irritation, and upset stomach. If this method of use is continued, there is an increased risk of becoming sensitized to the chemical components in the oil. Symptoms such as nausea, migraine, heartburn, and even stronger reactions such as hives and elevated liver enzymes can result.
Oral dosing of essential oils can interfere with medication and can aggravate other medical conditions. You may have heard something like “certain oils are GRAS” (generally recognized as safe for consumption), but this applies to consuming in food (food additives), not in water.
Where Else Can We Find Limonene?
Limonene is a known potent degreaser; it dissolves lipids. Limonene is used in the automotive industry, for things such as:
*Removal of tar, asphalt, gum, and gasoline spills
*Cleans grease and grime from car parts
*Limonene is in the popular product Goo Gone (8)
In these industrial type products, the limonene must first be combined with a surfactant in order to be effective (9).
Now that we know that limonene is not recommended for consumption in water and why, let’s very briefly take a look at essential oils in our food.
Essential Oils In Food
In comparison to adding essential oil to liquids to drink, adding to food is not “as much” of a concern. Remember in the food and flavoring industry, what is being added to foods (absolutes, oleoresins, CO2’s) is still very different from the essential oil.
One drop of an essential oil to a recipe “as long as” you have a decent fat source included (is, butter, crème, fatty vegetable oil, etc.) is likely ok. Add more than one drop, and you may very quickly ruin the recipe, so use caution. The better choice here is CO2’s. If you are new to using CO2’s, be sure to learn the appropriate dilution ratios as well as contraindications as they are often different from the essential oil.
As you can see, there are many misconceptions regarding the use of essential oils in food and beverages. Using straight essential oils in beverages is too risky a practice. I recommend using the true citrus fruit for your water. Knowing the proper method of use is crucial. When you are armed with the proper information, you can make informed decisions for yourself and your family.
(1) (2) Webb, M. (2016) CO2 Extracts. The How, What, Where, When and Why in Aromatic Therapies. (p 7, 9)
(3) Mukhopadhyay, M. (2000) Natural Extracts Using Supercritical Carbon Dioxide. CRC Press LLC (p 166)
(4) Arce, A., Soto, A. (2008) Citrus Essential Oils: Extraction and Deterpenation. Tree and Forestry Science and Biotechnology. Retrieved from http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/Online/GSBOnline/images/0812/TFSB_2(SI1)/TFSB_2(SI1)1-9o.pdf
(5) Rectification and Fractionation of Essential Oils. (2014) Retrieved from
(7) Preedy, V. (2016) Essential Oils In Food Preservation, Flavor, and Safety. London: Elsevier (p 116-117)
(8) Material Safety Data Sheet Goo Gone Liquid. Retrieved from
(9) d’Limonene Products. Retrieved from
Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist, has been studying natural living and holistic wellness for over 10 years. Leslie is a trusted resource that covers essential oil safety and encompasses all that natural living has to offer. She is passionate about providing education and tools to help others make decisions regarding safety above all things when utilizing aromatherapy in the home.