Can bay leaves kill you?
In this article, we will answer the following question: Can bay leaves kill you? We will tell you which types of bay leaves are edible and which types are dangerous. We will also talk about the use of bay leaf in the kitchen and how to store it long term.
Can bay leaves kill you?
No, bay leaves are non-toxic in nature and consumption is non-threatening to humans. However, the bay leaf remains very stiff even after cooking, thus can lead to indigestion or digestive problems. It can also become a choking hazard.
Acaricidal activity of bay leaf oils was observed against Psoroptes cuniculi. Acaricidal activity of bay oil led to a mortality rate of 73% at a concentration of 10% and at 5% average activity was considerably reduced to 51% (6).
The leaves produced by Laurus nobilis are non-toxic. However, certain species with the name “laurel” or “bay” can be really poisonous and should be avoided, while others can be perfectly safe. Don’t take chances if you’re not sure. Limit cooking with bay leaves to those available in supermarkets or that you grow yourself.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), also known by various names such as: bay leaf, sweet bay leaf, Greek bay leaf, or true bay leaf, is prized for its aromatic leaves that add a distinctive flavor to a variety of hot dishes (1). However, this delicious Mediterranean tree has a reputation for being toxic. What is the real truth about bay leaves? Are they poisonous? What laurels are edible? Can you cook with all the bay leaves, or are some bay leaves toxic? Let’s explore the topic.
Bay leaves and their essential oil do not appear to have any significant toxicity. However, sporadic reports have indicated that bay leaves may cause allergic contact dermatitis perhaps induced by one or more sesquiterpene lactone present in the plant composition. Certain bay leaf samples of Mexican origin had been detected to be infested with gastrointestinal disease causing Clostridium perfringens spores (1).
The consumption of moderate amounts of bay leaves is recommended because some compounds of the essential oil present in the leaves can easily overcome the blood–brain barrier. Therefore, an excessive uptake of these compounds can cause confusion and neurological disorders in adults and more serious problems in children. Several cases of intoxication due to leaves and fruits of laurel have been reported in Italy, mainly involving children (2).
About edible bay leaves
So which bay leaves are edible? Royal bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are safe, but the leathery leaves, which can be sharp at the edges, should always be removed from the plate before serving.
Additionally, the following “bay” plants are also considered safe. Like Laurus nobilis, they are all within the Lauraceae family:
West Indian bay leaf (Pimenta racemosa), is found on the various islands of the West Indies, but most particularly in Dominica andcontains the following chemicals: 10-hydroxy octacosanol tetradicanoate, l-docosanol tetradecanoate and 11-gaveeramanthin, dehydrocostus lactone, costunolide, zalu zanin and sesquiterpene alcohol (1).
California laurel (Umbellularia californica), also known as Oregon myrtle or pepper wood, is safe to use for culinary purposes, although the flavor is spicier and more intense than Laurus nobilis. The leaves of U. californica contain, as major volatile constituent, the monoterpene ketone umbellulone, a compound endowed with a strong, camphor-like odour that, when extracted from the leaf oil and administered to laboratory animals, affects respiration, heartbeat and blood circulation, eventually causing death. It can induce some individuals to headache (4).
Inedible bay leaves
Beware of the toxic trees in the bay. The following trees have toxic compounds and are inedible. They may have similar names and the leaves may look like regular bay leaves, but they belong to completely different plant families and are not related to bay.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia): All parts of the plant are toxic. Even honey made from the flowers can induce gastrointestinal pain if eaten in large quantities. Plants of the genus Kalmia contain diterpene grayanotoxins. Consumption of grayanotoxin containing leaves, flowers or secondary products as honey may result in intoxication specifically characterized by dizziness, hypotension and atrial-ventricular block. Symptoms are caused by an inability to inactivate neural sodium ion channels resulting in continuous increased vagal tone (3).
Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus): All parts of the plants are toxic and can cause life-threatening respiratory problems. Cherry laurel leaves, morphologically similar to those of laurel, contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides. Both humans and animals are susceptible to any damage resulting from the release of hydrogen cyanide after the ingestion of this plant (2).
Note: Although bay leaves are safe when used in small amounts, they can be toxic to horses, dogs, and cats. Symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting.
How to use bay leaf?
In the Middle Ages, bay leaves were used as medicine and as an insecticide, but also in the kitchen, where they were used to prepare meat roasts, soups, broths, and sauces; just as we continue to do in the XXI century.
Perhaps less common is their use to flavor a good bean dish, and they go especially well with lentils. It is also highly recommended to use it when our dishes ask for cloves as the bay leaves help to balance and enhance the flavor of this spice.
If we want to use the bay leaf in sweet dishes, it goes very well in puddings and ice creams, which greatly enhance the flavor and aroma of laurel, allowing us to taste it in a better way, since its properties are not overshadowed by those of other ingredients.
In addition, it is important to know that bay leaves should be treated as if they were a spice, considering that spices are more harmonious than aromatic herbs and can be combined more easily. Let us remember that bay leaves make a dish more complex and interesting; It may not be the most important, but it ensures to turn it into a party of flavor.
Although it is not very common to find fresh bay leaves, it is always necessary to bear in mind that its eucalyptus flavor is much more powerful when it is fresh than when the leaves are dry. Thus, fresh bay leaves are much better when used in desserts, providing a touch of freshness.
Also, it is necessary to remember that bay leaves grow in very dry sunny climates, like oregano or rosemary, so they retain their flavor better after they dry, unlike what happens with other herbs such as coriander, parsley, or basil.
How to store bay leaf?
The preservation of the aroma and flavor properties of spices and aromatic herbs depends a lot on how we store them, so it is recommended to use them for a period of 3-6 months in order to get the most out of them (5).
We must try to keep them in a hermetically closed glass jar, and if we want to keep them for many years, it is best to keep them in the freezer.
The bottom line
We remind you that the following types of bay leaves can be dangerous:
- Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
- Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)
And that the following types of bay leaves are safe to consume:
- Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala)
- Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens)
- California laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)
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- Peter, Kuruppacharil V., ed. Handbook of herbs and spices: volume 3. Woodhead publishing, 2006.
- Malaspina, Paola, et al. Risk of poisoning from garden plants: misidentification between laurel and cherry laurel. Toxins, 2022, 14, 726.
- Jansen, Suze A., et al. Grayanotoxin poisoning:‘mad honey disease’and beyond. Cardiovasc toxicol, 2012, 12, 208-215.
- Benemei, S., G. Appendino, and P. Geppetti. Pleasant natural scent with unpleasant effects: cluster headache-like attacks triggered by Umbellularia californica. Cephalalgia, 2010, 30, 744-746.
- Riley J. Selecting, Storing, and Using Fresh Herbs. Ohio State University. 2021.
- Batool S, Khera RA, Hanif MA, Ayub MA. Bay Leaf. Medicinal Plants of South Asia. 2020, 63-74.