Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: basil from Philip's Encyclopedia

Tropical plant of the mint family, whose leaves are used for flavouring food. It has white or purple flowers. Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae; species Ocimum basilicum.

Summary Article: BASIL, SWEET
From Leung's Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients: Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics

Source: Ocimum basilicum L. (Family Labiatae or Lamiaceae).

Common/vernacular names: Basil, common basil, and sweet basil.


Annual herb, about 0.5 m high, thought to be native to Africa and tropical Asia; cultivated worldwide (e.g., Europe, India, and the United States). There are many varieties, some of which have different compositions and flavoring characteristics. The plant is also strongly affected by environmental factors such as temperature, geographic location, soil, and amount of rainfall.1,2 Parts used are the dried leaves and flowering tops.

An essential oil is obtained by steam distillation. There are two major types of commercial basil oils, namely, the true sweet basil oil and the so-called exotic or Reunion, basil oil. True sweet basil oil is distilled in Europe and the United States; exotic basil oil is produced in the Comoro Islands, the Seychelles, and the Malagasy Republic. The two differ mainly in their contents of d-camphor, linalool, and estragole (methyl chavicol or 1-allyl-4-methoxybenzene). Generally, the former does not contain camphor and the latter contains little or no linalool; also the former is levorotatory and the latter is dextrorotatory.


The volatile oil (ca. 0.08%) contains d-linalool and estragole as the major components, with the former up to 55% and the latter about 70%, depending on the sources (MASADA).3,4 Other components include methyl cinnamate (reported to be the major component (ca. 28%) of a variety of sweet basil), 1, 8-cineole, eugenol, borneol, ocimene, geraniol, anethole; 10-cadinols, β-caryophyllene, α-terpineol, camphor, 3-octanone, methyleugenol, safrole, sesquithujene, and 1-epibicy-closesquiphellandrene as well as juvocimene 1 and juvocimene 2, which are potent juvenile hormone mimics (JIANGSU).4–8 There are great variations in concentrations of these components in the volatile oils from different sources.

Other constituents present in sweet basil include protein (14%), carbohydrates (61%), vitamins A and C in relatively high concentrations (MARSH), rosmarinic acid,9,10 thymol, and xanthomicrol (a flavone).11


The volatile oil of a variety of sweet basil was shown to have antiwormal activities.12 Essential oil has shown antimicrobial and mildly antiseptic activities in vitro.13

Methyl cinnamate, estragole and, to a lesser extent, ocimene, cineole, and linalool have insecticidal activities.14

Xanthomicrol has shown cytotoxic and antineoplastic activities.11


Sweet basil oil is reported to be nontoxic.15 Estragole, a major component in some sweet basil oils, has been shown to produce tumors (hepatocellular carcinomas) in mice16 and genotoxicity. The Council of Europe currently recommends that the level of estragole in food products should not exceed 0.05mg/kg.17


Medicinal, Pharmaceutical, and Cosmetic. Used as a fragrance ingredient in perfumes, soaps, hair dressings, dental creams, and mouth washes.

Food. used as a spice and in chartreuse liqueur.

The oil and oleoresin are extensively used as a flavor ingredient in all major food products, usually in rather low use levels (mostly below 0.005%).

Traditional Medicine. The herb has been used for head colds and as a cure for warts and worms, as an appetite stimulant, carminative, and diuretic, among other applications (BLUMENTHAL 1).7

More widely used as a medicinal herb in the Far East, especially in China and India. It was first described in a major Chinese herbal around AD 1060 and has since been used in China for spasms of the stomach and kidney ailments, among others; it is especially recommended for use before and after parturition to promote blood circulation. The whole herb is also used to treat snakebite and insect bites (JIANGSU; NANJING).


Crude, essential oil, and oleoresin.

Regulatory Status. Regulated in the United States as a dietary supplement; in foods, both the use of the herb as a spice, natural flavoring, or seasoning (§182.10), and the use of the essential oil and extractives (§182.20) are GRAS. Subject of a German therapeutic monograph; claimed efficacies not well substantiated; allowed as flavor corrigent at 5% or less (BLUMENTHAL 1; WICHTl).



  • 1. Pogany, D., Diss. Abstr. B, 28, 1871 (1967).
  • 2. Sobti, S. N. et al., Lloydia, 41, 50 (1978).
  • 3. Gulati, B. C. et al., Parfüm. Kosmet., 58, 165 (1977).
  • 4. Nigam, S. S. and Rao, A. K., Riechst., Aromen, Körperpflegem., 18, 169 (1968).
  • 5. Terhune, S. J. et al., Paper presented at the 6th International Congress of Essential Oils, 1974, p. 153.
  • 6. Karawya, M. S. et al., J. Agric. Food Chem., 22, 520 (1974).
  • 7. Hogg, J. W. et al., Am. Perfum. Cosmet., 86, 33 (1971).
  • 8. Bowers, W. S. and Nishida, R., Science, 209 (4460), 1030 (1980).
  • 9. Gerhardt, U. and Schroeter, A., Fleish-wirtschaft, 63, 1628 (1983).
  • 10. Reschke, A., Z. Lebensm. Unters. Forsch., 176, 116 (1983).
  • 11. Fatope, M. O. and Takeda, Y., Planta Med., 54, 190 (1988).
  • 12. Jain, M. L. and Jain, S. R., PlantaMed., 22, 66 (1972).
  • 13. Lachowicz, K. J. et al., Lett. Appl. Microbiol., 26, 209 (1998).
  • 14. Deshpande, R. S. and Tipnis, H. P., Pesticides, 11(5), 11 (1977).
  • 15. Opdyke, D. L. J., Food Cosmet. Toxicol., 11, 867 (1973).
  • 16. Drinkwater, N. R. et al., J. Natl. Cancer Inst., 57, 1323 (1976).
  • 17. Schulz, H. et al., J. Agric. Food Chem., 51, 2475 (2003).
Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Basil
Cambridge World History of Food

An herb that is part of the mint family, is native to India (and possibly Africa as well), and is known as the tomato's best friend, basil (...

Full text Article CHERVIL
Leung's Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients: Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics

Source: Anthriscus cerefolium (L.) Hoffm. (syn. A. longirostris Bertol.) (Family Umbelliferae or Apiaceae). Common/vernacular names: ...

See more from Credo