The Safety of Tarragon

The Safety of Tarragon
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Longstanding concerns about certain isolated components of the spice tarragon have broadened into questions about the safety of even the leaves themselves.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Decades ago, a concern was raised about some of the components of the spice tarragon, so much so the European Union’s Health & Consumer Protection Scientific Committee on Food eventually concluded that one of its constituents may damage DNA, cause cancer, and so we should reduce and restrict its use.

But, they were talking about an isolated chemical from tarragon being used as a flavoring agent in alcoholic beverages, canned fish, and fats and oils. As recently as 2011, reviews concluded that the consumption of the tarragon leaves themselves should present little or no risk. But, this was based on studies done on rats.

Now, a 2012 study made me feel better, suggesting that while the isolated tarragon chemical may indeed be toxic to human liver cells, full extracts of the leaves were not—suggesting that the whole food may contain compounds that counteract the toxic effects.

And so, I was going to leave it at that, and not even do a video about it, since tarragon seemed to be in the clear. But, a 2013 study on human white blood cells reopened the question, finding that whole-leaf tarragon extracts may have DNA-damaging properties after all.

Remember the comet test? They conclude that tarragon does indeed appear to be “mutagenic,” to at least a certain extent. However, the current data “is not comprehensive enough to draw definitive conclusions regarding its potential risk to human health with sustained use,” nor comprehensive enough to establish a safe dose or quantify the risk.

“Nevertheless, future use of tarragon in both diet [or herbal medicine] should be undertaken with an awareness of…its…potential toxicity.” So, what have I taken away from all this? Well, my family eats tarragon so rarely it’s not probably going to change our intake at all.

But, if you’re a tarragon fanatic, I’d suggest moderating your intake, and substituting another herb, like a dash of fennel or anise seed, or chervil—all of which have a similar licorice-y tarragon taste. The only caveat I could find is that you should, if you pick chervil wild, I would be cautious, as it bears a resemblance to an herb known all too well to Socrates—poison hemlock.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Dominikmatus and Petr Filippov via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks also to Maxim Fetissenko and Laurie-Marie Pisciotta for their Keynote help.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Decades ago, a concern was raised about some of the components of the spice tarragon, so much so the European Union’s Health & Consumer Protection Scientific Committee on Food eventually concluded that one of its constituents may damage DNA, cause cancer, and so we should reduce and restrict its use.

But, they were talking about an isolated chemical from tarragon being used as a flavoring agent in alcoholic beverages, canned fish, and fats and oils. As recently as 2011, reviews concluded that the consumption of the tarragon leaves themselves should present little or no risk. But, this was based on studies done on rats.

Now, a 2012 study made me feel better, suggesting that while the isolated tarragon chemical may indeed be toxic to human liver cells, full extracts of the leaves were not—suggesting that the whole food may contain compounds that counteract the toxic effects.

And so, I was going to leave it at that, and not even do a video about it, since tarragon seemed to be in the clear. But, a 2013 study on human white blood cells reopened the question, finding that whole-leaf tarragon extracts may have DNA-damaging properties after all.

Remember the comet test? They conclude that tarragon does indeed appear to be “mutagenic,” to at least a certain extent. However, the current data “is not comprehensive enough to draw definitive conclusions regarding its potential risk to human health with sustained use,” nor comprehensive enough to establish a safe dose or quantify the risk.

“Nevertheless, future use of tarragon in both diet [or herbal medicine] should be undertaken with an awareness of…its…potential toxicity.” So, what have I taken away from all this? Well, my family eats tarragon so rarely it’s not probably going to change our intake at all.

But, if you’re a tarragon fanatic, I’d suggest moderating your intake, and substituting another herb, like a dash of fennel or anise seed, or chervil—all of which have a similar licorice-y tarragon taste. The only caveat I could find is that you should, if you pick chervil wild, I would be cautious, as it bears a resemblance to an herb known all too well to Socrates—poison hemlock.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Dominikmatus and Petr Filippov via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks also to Maxim Fetissenko and Laurie-Marie Pisciotta for their Keynote help.

Doctor's Note

For those scratching their heads over the significance of that red smudge, see my explanation of the comet tail test in Cancer, Interrupted: Garlic & Flavonoids.

If you missed my last two videos on the safety of common spices, see Update on Cinnamon for Blood Sugar Control and Don’t Eat Too Much Nutmeg.

This new tarragon finding reminds me a bit of the in vitro data raising questions about the safety of avocados (see Are Avocados Bad for You?) that thankfully appeared to not translate out into population studies (see my response to Any update on the scary in vitro avocado data? I’ll keep an eye out for new data, and post to the NutritionFacts.org Facebook page if I find anything. In the meanwhile, there are a bunch of other reasons to avoid canned fish:

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Nutmeg Toxicity and Tarragon Toxicity?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

14 responses to “The Safety of Tarragon

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  1. Hello Dr. Greger,

    I have an unrelated question about extruded breakfast cereal (your site says to post any questions under video comments). I’ve been reading that the processes of extrusion renders the proteins in grains toxic. I’m hoping you can address this either in a video or your FAQ.

    Thanks!

    1. Hi, Josef, while I’m not a food chemist by a long-shot, I have studied more than my share of chemistry and engineering. From what I’ve learned along the way, I can’t imagine the extrusion process transforming proteins. Furthermore, if it is capable of such a transformation, if I were still eating flesh, I’d be concerned about all the protein in sausages as well. In fact, given the higher protein content of flesh vs grains, I’d be more concerned about sausage than breakfast cereal.

      It’d help if you could provide the actual reference to your reading… there’s a lot of stuff that gets onto the Internets that has no more support than “people say”… just who are those people, what interest(s) (if any) are underwriting them, and what *exactly* are they saying? I mean, anyone can play that game… I’ve read that eating apple seeds will make apple saplings grow in our stomachs and that swallowing bubble gum will block off our bowels… people say!

      That said, if extruding grains turns grain proteins toxic, I’d think we’d’ve seen major amounts of illness in Italy due to their prodigious pasta consumption… one makes pasta by extruding wheat dough into noodles, protein rich wheat at that. Bottom line: I think it’s safe to eat breakfast cereal but it would be healthier to forgo the heavily processed cereals in favor of whole-food cereals like oats, barley, rice, etc.

  2. Curious Dr. Greger…does this rule apply to all varieties of tarragon? Or as I am hoping, it’s specific to the A. Dracunculus species… I grow Tagetes Lucida which is in the same family but has a different genus and family. I also talk about it in presentations so needless to say I’m very curious about this. Thank you.

  3. Curious Dr. Greger…does this rule apply to all varieties of tarragon? Or as I am hoping, it’s specific to the A. Dracunculus species… I grow Tagetes Lucida which is in the same family but has a different genus and species. I also talk about it in presentations so needless to say I’m very curious about this. Thank you.

      1. I, among others, are part of the nutritionfacts team. We are here to answer questions to the best of our knowledge. Although at first, it was possible for Dr. Greger to acknowledge everyone’s question, the volume of questions is so great there is no way he can get to them all now as the popularity of this website has grown. He does respond to some every so often.

      2. To answer your question as to whether Dr Greger is credible? The answer is ‘yes’. He publishes well researched information that is unlikely to be tainted by the agenda of corporate interests.

        The question you’re really posing is whether the good doctor is available or responsive. The answer to that question is ‘no’, or perhaps ‘yes, within the limits of his busy schedule’.

        While I’d love it were I to have a personal relationship with Dr Greger which would allow him to respond to any question I might ask of him, I’m content to benefit from the treasure trove of information that I publishes without seeking or accepting personal compensation.

  4. Hello Dr. I am a culinary student and i have to do a presentation about tarragon and i came across your video i was wondering if you were talking about a specific kind of tarragon of just tarragon in general?

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