Is basil safe to eat raw? (Health benefits)
In this brief guide, we will answer the question “Is basil safe to eat raw?”. I will also explore what are the health benefits of basil and how to properly handle and store basil.
Is basil safe to eat raw?
Yes, raw basil is safe to eat. Most often, you’ll find the larger leaves finely chopped, torn apart, or minced before they’re sprinkled into an array of dishes like pasta, rice, salads, and many vegetarian dishes.
The branches and flexible woody stems from basil plants, specifically O. basilicum, can be used to add a burst of flavor to all types of dishes. Seafood, chicken, steamed meats, soups, and a variety of beverages. The flowers of basil plants are edible and are used as a flavorful garnish that can be added to dishes and salads right at the end of cooking, elevating the aroma and offering a unique taste.
Basil has many uses, spanning from being a key ingredient in beverages, liqueurs, herbal teas, stews, sauces, and dressings, to enhancing plates of fish, vegetables, and meats. (1)
What are the risks of raw basil?
The combination of herb production methods and their common consumption in raw form presents challenges in ensuring food safety. Some basil samples have been discovered to occasionally contain salmonella.
Although the primary source of these salmonella outbreak strains is likely of animal origin, herbs can also become cross-contaminated due to improper handling, and inadequate storage practices can exacerbate contamination.
It’s worth noting that, despite the presence of salmonella in various basil samples, no instances of salmonellosis could be directly linked to the consumption of these contaminated herbs. (2)
What is the nutritional content of basil?
Sweet basil and other basil varieties are distinguished by their low-fat content and are recognized for their low-calorie count. Basil serves as a valuable source of minerals and vitamin A.
Just a few fresh basil leaves, weighing approximately 2.5 grams, contain 11.55 milligrams of potassium, 3.85 milligrams of calcium, 96.6 International Units (IU) of vitamin A, and provide less than one calorie of energy.
Additionally, basil offers a small amount of vitamin C, dietary fiber, protein, various minerals, and a range of other chemical components. The distinctive aroma of basil primarily arises from the abundance of volatile essential oils, predominantly found in green basil leaves, and is known for its high concentration of aldehydes, terpenes, and phenols. (1)
What are the health benefits of basil?
Basil’s robust antioxidant properties can be attributed to its elevated levels of flavonoids and phenolic compounds. Notably, basil serves as a natural cellular-level anticancer agent, thanks to its unique array of flavonoids such as orientin and vicenin, which are recognized for safeguarding chromosomes and cellular integrity.
Furthermore, basil exhibits potent antiviral qualities, with significant potential against various RNA viruses. Beyond this, basil demonstrates antibiotic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory attributes. Additionally, basil holds promise in reducing excessive triglycerides and cholesterol levels in the body, thus aiding in the prevention of various cardiovascular disorders. (1)
What are the uses of basil?
Basil leaves are extensively utilized to enhance the flavors of various dishes, such as soups, meat pies, fish recipes, select cheeses, tomato salads, cooked cucumber dishes, peas, squash, and string beans. They are also used in the preparation of vinegar and oils. Chopped basil can be generously sprinkled over lamb chops before cooking.
In Italy, basil holds a significant place in seasoning tomato paste products and is frequently employed in pizza toppings, spaghetti sauces, meatballs, and macaroni and cheese bakes, often serving as a substitute for oregano.
The essential oil extracted from O. basilicum through distillation is a sought-after flavoring agent in numerous food items and is cherished in the field of perfumery due to its aromatic attributes.
This versatile basil essential oil finds its way into a range of food products, including confectionery, baked goods, condiments, spiced meats, ice creams, puddings, liquors, and non-alcoholic beverages. Moreover, it serves as a flavoring component in specific dental and oral hygiene products.
The juice derived from basil leaves offers therapeutic benefits, alleviating symptoms of colds, coughs, and croup when mixed with honey. It is also utilized to relieve toothaches, earaches, and headaches, and can be blended with camphor to halt nasal hemorrhages.
Additionally, it is believed to enhance the luster of the eyes and is an effective remedy for conditions such as ringworms, scorpion stings, and snakebites. (3)
How to avoid basil contamination?
Adhering to sound fundamental food hygiene practices can significantly diminish the risk of transmission through cross-contamination or contact with infected food handlers.
After harvesting, it is essential to wash and clean the leaves to eliminate any weeds and foreign substances. When preparing for the fresh market, it is imperative to select only the finest plant materials, those exhibiting optimal color and aroma retention. (2, 3)
What is the shelf life of raw basil?
At 5 °C, the post-harvest shelf-life of basil is limited to just 3–4 days. Beyond this period, the visual quality deteriorates as signs of chilling injury become apparent.
When basil is stored at 10 °C in PVC packaging, it effectively minimizes mold and yeast growth, preserving the microbiological quality for approximately 9 days. Storing basil for extended periods after harvest is not advisable, as it leads to a decline in its quality. (3)
How to store raw basil?
To store raw basil, you can dry the leaves by hanging the foliage upside down in small bunches in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or by spreading them flat on a drying rack under the same conditions. Once the basil is thoroughly dried, strip the leaves from the stems and store them whole or chopped in an airtight container away from heat sources and bright light.
For the best color and aroma retention, it’s recommended to dry the plant below 30 °C under vacuum in suitable containers. Another preservation option is to store the leaves in small plastic bags in a freezer. Leaves and flowers should be dried below 35 °C before milling or grinding to maintain the best color retention. (3)
In this brief guide, we answered the question “Is basil safe to eat raw?”. I also explored what are the health benefits of basil and how to properly handle and store basil. In my perspective as a food scientist, raw basil is safe to consume and with proper handling and storage, it can be consumed with minimal risk.
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NADEEM, Farwa et al. Basil. In: Medicinal Plants of South Asia. Elsevier, 2020. p. 47-62.
ELVISS, N. C.; JØRGENSEN, F. Investigations prompted by the discovery of high levels of Salmonella in fresh herbs in the UK. In: Case Studies in Food Safety and Authenticity. Woodhead Publishing, 2012. p. 116-122.
PUSHPANGADAN, P.; GEORGE, V. Basil. In: Handbook of herbs and spices. Woodhead publishing, 2012. p. 55-72.