It’s impossible to know exactly what ingredients are in your incense. However, knowing the possible side effects of common incense ingredients can give you a better idea of how safe it is to eat.
The most common known ingredients in most incense are edible but, it’s also possible to have negative side effects from consuming even some of the edible ingredients. Joss papers, on the other hand, are highly dangerous to consume.
Read on to learn the most common ingredients in incense and what happens if you eat them.
Can You Eat Incense?
It’s best not to eat incense. The main ingredients in most incense will not harm you. However, without ingredient lists on the labels, it’s impossible to know for sure what’s inside and whether it’s safe.
The most common ingredients in many incense sticks and cones are all well-known and edible. However, many come with possible side effects that are unpleasant or even dangerous. There’s always the chance that you could react negatively to one of the ingredients, it could contain dangerous ingredients, or that the ingredients may interact with your medication.
It’s certain that you should never eat joss papers because the heavy metals in them are highly toxic and possibly lethal.
So, if you eat incense, you are taking an unnecessary health or life risk.
Ingredients in Incense
Incense has two parts: the combustible binding materials that ignite and burn to produce smoke and the aromatic ingredients that provide a pleasant scent.
While the actual ingredients in incense are proprietary secrets, most incense is a combination of fragrant gums and resins, wood powders, spices, and herbs.
The combustible ingredients vary depending on whether your incense is a coil, cone, powder, or stick. Common combustible ingredients include:
- Wood powder
- Herbal powder
The typical composition of a wooden incense stick is 35% fragrance, 33% wood (often bamboo), 21% herbal and wood powder, and 11% adhesive powder.
Bark from the Chinese coffin tree is the typical ingredient for incense stick adhesive. Luckily, the tree gets its name from its popularity in China for coffins rather than from being toxic.
Are the Aromatic Ingredients in Incense Edible?
The aromatic ingredients in incense vary depending on the specific scent profile. The most-used ones are spices and herbs or components of traditional medicines. So, they’re edible. However, consuming some of them may result in negative side effects in some cases:
- Cinnamon: This tree bark is a well-known spice worldwide. However, it interacts with some medications, and consuming too much can cause liver problems.
- Frankincense: Frankincense resin is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine for various ailments. However, it can cause allergic reactions or react with medications.
- Musk: This chemical from the musk gland of a male deer is dried and used as a flavoring and medicine. There’s no scientific indication of musk toxicity.
- Myrrh: Myrrh resin can flavor foods and beverages and serves medical purposes. However, even small amounts cause diarrhea in some people, and more than 2-4 grams (far less than an ounce) can cause kidney or heart problems.
- Patchouli: Patchouli is an herb in the mint family that is common as tea and in traditional Chinese medicine. Patchouli doesn’t seem to have any side effects in ordinary food amounts.
- Sandalwood: Sandalwood is common in traditional medicine. It is an FDA-approved food flavoring without any known side effects.
- Chinese licorice: The stalk of this flowering plant is a food, and both the root and underground stem are ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. Eating more than 5 grams daily can cause severe side effects, including heart attacks, especially if they have underlying heart or kidney problems.
- Nardostachys Chinensis Batal: his ingredient is a component of Islamic, Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Korean folk medicines. There’s no information available about its possible side effects.
- Fennel: Fennel is a common spice for food and drinks. It also has medicinal uses. However, side effects can include breathing difficulty, throat or chest tightness or pain, upset stomach, vomiting, skin reactions, increased menstrual flow, sun sensitivity, or seizures.
- Chinese rhubarb: The stalk of this flowering plant is a common food, and both the root and underground stem are used for traditional Chinese medicine. Side effects from short-term use may include digestive pain, diarrhea, or uterine contractions.
- Radix Aucklandia: The woody roots of this plant are common in traditional Chinese medicine. While it’s possibly safe to consume, it sometimes contains a contaminant called aristolochic acid, which damages kidneys and causes cancer.
- Cloves: Cloves are the edible flower bud of an evergreen clove tree, which is a common kitchen spice. However, cloves can sometimes cause allergic reactions.
- Basil: Basil is an herb in the mint family that is a common seasoning for food. It’s likely safe in usual food amounts.
What Happens If You Eat Wood?
Since most incense contains wood, wood powder, or both, you may be curious about what happens if you eat wood.
Humans produce enzymes called amylases to break down starches into glucose that we can use for energy. However, humans don’t have the correct enzymes to break down the cellulose in wood.
Termites have bacteria and protozoa in their intestines that make the enzymes necessary for them to digest wood. However, humans don’t harbor these same bacteria and protozoa in our guts to help us.
So, what happens if you eat the wood in an incense stick? Even if you are consuming ground wood (like the adhesive in an incense stick), it will pass through you undigested. It may be beneficial as fibrous roughage. However, if you were eating incense in hopes of gaining nutritional value or energy, you’re out of luck.
What Happens If You Eat Charcoal?
If you’re interested in the safety of eating a charcoal incense cone, you will want to consider what happens to your body when you eat charcoal.
Charcoal has been used in traditional medicines since ancient times. It’s even used as an emergency poison treatment since it can bind to many types of drugs to reduce their effects. Studies show that it stops the body from absorbing the drug and helps eliminate the drug more quickly.
So, it’s possible that eating a charcoal incense cone could help eliminate some of the side effects that could possibly occur from consuming the aroma-producing agents in incense.
While eating charcoal is generally safe, it may result in vomiting. And in rare cases, it has caused bowel blockages (usually in people with gut motility disorders).
The Dangers of Eating Joss Papers
Doctors have warned of the dangers of eating joss papers because they contain lethal substances such as:
Heavy metal poisoning can lead to nausea and diarrhea with the long-term possibility of:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Brain developmental problems in children
- Kidney failure
Final Thoughts on Eating Incense
While you may suffer no ill effects from eating most incense, there’s always the possibility of dangerous ingredients, or that you could react badly to an ingredient. However, you should never consume joss papers.
Eating charcoal cone incense probably poses the least risk because of the potential of charcoal to prevent the body from absorbing the other ingredients. However, without being an FDA-approved food and knowing the ingredients, incense is best left off your menu.