Exploring the unexpected medicinal trend: Why patients are turning to clove chewing

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published November 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Cloves contain phenolic compounds, mainly eugenol, a powerful antioxidant.

  • Excessive consumption of cloves can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • Avoid chewing on cloves whole and limit intake to one piece.

Cloves are a popular spice included in people’s diets around the world. They’re used in meat rubs, marinades, desserts, teas, and sauces. You may find them in mulled wine or hot apple cider at this time of year. 

These aromatic flower buds are packed with flavor and potential health benefits—and people are starting to catch on. The hashtag #clovesbenefits has around 4 million views on TikTok, with many users promoting the plant’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. According to those promoting the trend, chewing on cloves regularly can potentially help improve oral hygiene, reduce gum inflammation and tooth pain, combat bad breath, and fight harmful bacteria.[][]   

There’s evidence—to a degree—to back these claims up. In moderation, cloves are thought to fight inflammation, fend off harmful bacteria, and promote liver and blood sugar function, research suggests. “They're not to be feared; they're lovely,” Laura Rubin, a certified clinical herbalist and the founder of Nurture, says. “That said, don't go dumping a bunch of cloves in your mouth and swallowing them.”[][][]

Here’s why cloves may protect your health 

Cloves are rich in phenolic compounds, namely eugenol, a type of molecule found in plants that’s known for its potential health benefits. Eugenol is known specifically for being a powerful antioxidant. “Since it is about 50% of clove's essential oils, we can understand eugenol as a key mechanism for its health benefits,” says Rubin.[]

Cloves also appear to have an antimicrobial effect, providing protection against various microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. “Cloves have been shown to inhibit the two types of bacteria from reproducing in the mouth, which are known for causing gum disease,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a clinical dietitian, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of “Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life.” In a test tube study, cloves appeared to kill E. coli, a pathogen that causes food poisoning.[][] []

There’s also evidence that cloves have anti-inflammatory properties. Research suggests that the plant can help protect cells against oxidative damage that’s caused by free radicals, which damage the body’s cells and tissue. One study, for example, found that people who regularly used mouthwash containing cloves and other herbs experienced improvements in gum health, potentially since many periodontitis conditions have bacterial and inflammatory components.[][]

The flower buds may also help keep blood sugar levels under control by improving insulin sensitivity—how well the body’s cells react to insulin—and protecting against liver scarring (cirrhosis), says Hunnes.[][][]

That said, more evidence is needed to understand better the mechanisms of action and how, specifically, cloves impact human health. “While some studies suggest benefits such as blood sugar regulation and liver protection, more research is needed for conclusive evidence on these specific health claims,” says Emily Buchholtz, a registered dietician who specializes in adult oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

The safest way to use cloves: crushed and in moderation 

With any herb, it is all about how you take them and how much you take, according to Rubin. Effects can vary from person to person. “The health benefits of plants aren't necessarily universally applicable: What's good for one person may not be right for another,” she says.

People who are pregnant or lactating should check in with their doctor before consuming cloves. There’s limited data regarding how cloves may impact pregnancies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that clove oil, in particular, is likely unsafe for children. In addition, people should stop using cloves two weeks before a scheduled surgery, as the plant might impact blood sugar levels and slow blood clotting, according to the NIH.[][]

Rubin says it’s best to consume cloves when crushed, which is typically how they are used to flavor food and beverage products. “This helps our bodies better assimilate and process it,” she says. Buchholtz similarly suggests incorporating cloves into your diet instead of chewing on them whole. Use them to flavor stews, soups, or rice dishes, she suggests. You can also use ground cloves when preparing baked goods or steep a few cloves in hot water when making tea, she adds. According to Hunnes, it's unclear how often and in what quantity you should consume cloves in order to reap all the health benefits; however, incorporating them into recipes or adding them to tea is a tasty way to start.

For those who choose to chew on cloves, only one piece is necessary, says Rubin. “A little goes a long way,” she says, adding that you should also avoid swallowing them whole. Try not to overdo it. Consuming too many cloves can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, including symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, according to Buchholtz. 

Eugenol, one of the main compounds in cloves, can act as a blood thinner, which can increase the risk of bleeding in people who take anticoagulant medications or have bleeding disorders. The best way to enjoy cloves is in moderation: “Remember that more does not always mean better health benefits,” Buchholtz says.

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