Bay leaf is often called for in recipes like soups and sauces — however most often the directions say to remove the bay leaves before digging in. That may leave you wondering: Are bay leaves edible, and are there bay leaf benefits for health?
This herb has been around for centuries and utilized for both medicinal purposes as well as for flavoring flood. Used in cooking for a distinctive, savory flavor or fragrance for meats, soups and stews, and even as an ingredient in a cologne known as bay rum, you may find bay leaf in cosmetics, soaps and detergents as well.
Bay leaf does offer some impressive health benefits, such as helping reduce gas and bloating and fighting free radical damage thanks to its antioxidants. There’s even some evidence it may help treat dandruff, muscle and joint pain, and skin infections.
Find out below how to use this ancient herb for its anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects.
What Is Bay Leaf?
Bay leaves grow on a group of evergreen plants that belong to the plant family called Lauraceae. These plants produce aromatic leaves that are used in cooking and for other purposes.
They are available whole/fresh, dried or ground into powder.
Turkish bay leaves are the most commonly used type. They grow on the ancient tree called Laurus nobilis, which is native the Mediterranean region.
The baby leaf is delicately fragrant, with an herbal and floral aroma and a somewhat bitter taste. The smell and flavor come from the plant’s essential oil, which is about 2 percent of the plant by weight.
Bay leaf is said to have a stronger aroma than taste, which is why it isn’t always ingested but is also slowly steeped to make tea or flavor sauces, burned for its smell, and used in other ways.
It’s most common to use the dried version of the whole leaf when cooking, but most often the leaf is removed from dishes before being served. Because the whole leaves can be a choking hazard, they are taken out of recipes like sauces, rice dishes and soups before serving, although their flavor still remains in the dish.
The name “bay leaf” refers to various plants, including:
- Bay laurel
- California bay leaf
- Indian bay leaf
- Indonesian bay leaf or Indonesian laurel
- West Indian bay leaf
- Mexican bay leaf
It seems that various references to the bay leaf species cause some confusion in regard to what’s considered a “true bay leaf.”
To be a true bay leaf, most experts tell us that that leaf must come from the tree Laurus nobilis. This particular species is also sometimes called bay laurel or sweet bay.
Like other herbs, bay leaves are low in calories and high in vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamin A and polyphenols. One tablespoon (approximately 1.8 grams) of crumbled bay leaf contains about:
- Calories: 5.6
- Total Carbohydrates: 1.4 g
- Fiber: 0.5 g
- Total Fat: 0.2 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.04 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.04 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 0.03 g
- Trans Fat: 0 g
- Protein: 0.1 g
- Sodium: 0.4 mg (0.02% DV*)
- Manganese: 0.1 mg (4% DV)
- Iron: 0.8 mg (4% DV)
- Vitamin A: 5.6 mcg (1% DV)
*Daily Value: Percentages are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
What is bay leaf good for? Here’s what research tells us about bay leaves benefits:
1. Have Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Qualities
Bay leaf, including bay leaf essential oil, offers anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits due to antioxidants and other protective compounds found in the plant. This herb contains more than 80 identified compounds, including polyphenols, eucalyptol, cineole, sabinene and linalool.
One study conducted at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University focused on the antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of specific essential oils from white wormwood, rose-scented geranium and bay laurel on fresh produce against dangerous bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli. All three essential oils showed antioxidant properties, with the highest activity occurring in bay laurel essential oil.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, demonstrating that Laurus nobilis can defend against a range of health problems due to phytochemicals, volatile and non-volatile oils, flavonoids, tannins, sesquiterpene alcohols, and alkaloids.
It’s also been shown in extract form to reduce expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines that can contribute to chronic conditions.
2. May Prevent Candida and Contain Wound-Healing Benefits
Bay leaf has been shown to provide antifungal properties, according to studies.
One published in the Archives of Oral Biology showed that essential oil of bay laurel defended against candida. In the study, bay laurel disrupted adhesion of candida to cell walls, therefore reducing its ability to penetrate the membrane, making it a great addition to a candida diet in order to combat this fungal condition.
In addition to fighting candida, in animal studies bay leaf has been used as an extract and in a poultice to help heal wounds. While it wasn’t as effective in healing wounds as quickly or as effectively as the Allamanda cathartica. L. extract, the bay laurel extract did show improved wound healing compared to the control group.
3. May Help Fight Cancer
Evaluation of the use of bay leaf extract has shown that both the leaves and fruits of the Laurus nobilis plant are capable of fighting breast cancer. The study noted bay leaf as a potential natural agent for breast cancer therapy by comparing cells that were induced with the extracts and those that were not.
Cell death occurred in those that were induced, potentially making bay leaf a possible natural cancer treatment option.
Further research published in Nutrition and Cancer suggests that this extract may also help fight colorectal cancer.
In vitro studies were conducted using extracts of the bay leaf against colon cancer cell growth. By using a process of incorporating ingredients, such as bay leaf, into food, results exhibited the potential for colon cancer-regulating properties, showing relevance to protection against colorectal cancer during early stages of detection.
4. Could Be Useful for Diabetics
It’s possible that bay leaf can help lower blood sugar levels. Research from one study found that by taking bay leaf capsules, blood sugar levels and LDL cholesterol levels dropped in participants.
Further research published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition reveals that bay leaves may improve insulin function. The study was conducted to determine if bay leaves may help manage type 2 diabetes.
Forty people were given varied amounts of bay leaf, in the form of a capsule, per day over a period of 30 days. All amounts reduced serum glucose and total cholesterol, but there were no significant changes in the placebo group.
The overall outcome shows that regular consumption of bay leaves may help decrease risk factors for diabetes and even cardiovascular diseases.
5. Aid in Digestion
Bay leaves may have an impact on the gastrointestinal system by preventing against gastric damage and promoting urination, which helps release toxins in the body and aids in health of the kidneys.
Within bay leaves are certain organic compounds containing enzymes that may also help soothe an upset stomach, protect against kidney stones and reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, such as bloating and gas.
In some cases, bay leaf products have also been shown to decrease symptoms of stomach ulcers. Overall, the herb seems to provide digestive relief by enhancing the digestion process, fighting certain bacteria that can contribute to ulcers (including Helicobacter pyloriis) and helping increase nutrient absorption.
Aside from the bay leaf benefits described above, this herb has a number of other interesting uses as well. Throughout history, such as in Ancient Rome and Greece, it has been used to make:
- Herbal tea to promote healthy digestion
- Poultices to help those suffering with seizures and headaches — bay leaves were combined with cinnamon, nutmeg and olive oil for this purpose
- Skin treatments for bee and wasp stings
- Vapor treatments for coughs and colds, bronchitis and chest infections
- Massage oil to reduce aches and pains
- Topical rub used to decrease swelling and arthritic pain
- Fever reducer
- Bug repellent
- Crowns that signified success
- Homemade fragrances and room sprays (due to its menthol-like fragrance, early European settlers named the bay tree “pepperwood”)
- Fire starters, such as to attract deer
Where can you buy bay leaf essential oil and other products? Look for these products in health food stores and online. You can also find them in certain pharmacies.
New to cooking with bay leaves? Here are some tips for using this herb at home to take advantage of all the bay leaf benefits:
When purchasing this herb, look for dried bay leaves that are blemish-free, making sure there are no cracks or tears. If you’re looking to purchase fresh bay leaves, seek out those that are bright green and waxy-looking, while allowing a bend and twist without tearing.
You can cook using the bay leaf whole, but make sure to remove whole bay leaves from your dish before serving to prevent choking.
While the Turkish bay laurel is most popular, if you go for the California bay leaves, use about half the amount that a recipe calls for since they’re usually stronger in flavor.
Store bay leaves by sealing them well, such as in a mason jar with an airtight lid. If stored properly, the dried leaves can last up to two years.
Bay leaf can add that special touch of flavor and depth to most any dish. Try this spice blend on your favorite wild-caught fish or organic chicken.
Here are some healthy recipes that utilize bay leaves:
- Bay Leaf Tea
- Hasselback Butternut Squash with Bay Leaves
- Split Pea Soup
- Lamb Stew
- Rice with Onion and Bay Leaf
- Tomato Sauce with Bay Leaf and Butter
- Chicken Gumbo (with Chicken Andouille Sausage)
- Hungarian Goulash
- Beef Bone Broth
- Chicken Bone Broth
- Slow Cooker Beef Stew
- One-Pot Chicken Tinga
Risks and Side Effects
What are the side effects of bay leaves? Though uncommon, if you notice any sort of allergic reaction, seek help as needed, as some people are allergic to bay laurel.
If you experience any side effects, such as a rash, itchy mouth or swollen tongue, stop eating this herb immediately, and avoid it in the future. If you have a known allergy, check products such as spices and herb mixtures, as well as beauty products, to make sure they don’t contain bay leaf/Laurus nobilis essential oil.
While this herb is common in preparing food, you need to use caution when cooking with the whole bay leaf. It’s important to remember to pull out the leaves from sauces and stews to prevent someone from choking on them.
If you have concerns, go for the dried, ground version instead of whole leaves. The leaf itself can become lodged in the throat, so it’s best not to actually eat it whole.
That’s why this herb is used in cooking and typically removed. Using dried bay leaves instead allows you to enhance the flavor and aroma of recipes without having to consume the whole leaf.
- Bay leaf is an herb that is used in cooking and also a plant used to make essential oil that is rich in antioxidants.
- Bay leaf benefits include helping prevent candida, fight infections due to its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, heal wounds, potentially fight cancer, support metabolic health, and aid in digestion.
- If you’re new to cooking with this herb at home, start with small amounts. You can break bay leaves in half or use the fresh or ground versions.
- Because the whole leaves can be a choking hazard, they are often removed from recipes like sauces, rice dishes and soups before serving.