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?

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