The Pros and Cons of Safflower Oil

Safflower oil is made from safflower seeds, and is commonly used in cooking. Safflower oil is also sometimes used as a topical skin treatment. It has healthful benefits, although some of its health claims have been found to be exaggerated.

Safflower oil is a common cooking oil. (Image: dulezidar/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Safflower oil has many uses in cooking and is a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It also has analgesic qualities. Some studies have linked safflower oil consumption to weight loss. But other reputable studies show no link between safflower oil and weight loss.

What Is Safflower Oil?

Safflowers date back to ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. The flowering plant is native to Egypt, East Asia and the western coast of North America, according to the April-June 2014 issue of the Brazilian Journal of Chemical Engineering. The plant grows 1 to 4 feet high and bears red, orange, yellow or white flowers. Safflowers were once used for dye, but today the plant's main use is to produce oil from its seeds.

Safflower oil came into modern use in the 1930s, when producers pressed the seeds for oil, according to the University of California - Davis. It took about 20 years before making safflower oil become profitable. Most American safflower production is in California, followed by North Dakota and Montana.

Safflower oil is valuable for use in paint and varnish, because it doesn't turn yellow as it ages. Its main use is in food, however. The oil and seeds have a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats. Safflower seeds also contain about 24 percent protein and are high in fiber. The whole seeds are commonly used as birdseed. Safflower oil can also be prepared as a protein supplement for livestock. It's mainly grown in India, but also in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Turkey and Israel.

A Polyunsaturated Fat

Safflower is a mostly comprised of polyunsaturated fat. It contains about 70 percent polyunsaturated linoleic acid, and about 10 percent monounsaturated oleic acid, according to a study in the January 2018 issue of International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

Safflower oil has a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential fats that are important to good health. Essential fats, according to Harvard Health Publishing, are needed for your body to function properly, but your body can't actually make them. You must get them from food.

Polyunsaturated fats help to build cell membranes and the sheaths that cover nerves. Your body uses polyunsaturated fats for blood clotting, muscle movement and inflammation. There are two kinds of polyunsaturated fats ⁠— omega-6 fatty acids, like safflower oil, and omega-3 fatty acids. Both are needed for good health.

Harvard Health Publishing says that eating polyunsaturated fats rather than saturated fats or highly refined carbohydrates helps to reduce LDL cholesterol, sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol. That's because you want lower levels of LDL cholesterol in your body. It also reduces triglycerides, which is a good thing. Safflower oil has very little saturated fat.

Omega-6s and Omega-3s

While safflower oil is an omega-6 fatty acid, most Americans get all the omega-6 fatty acids they need in their diets, says the Cleveland Clinic. This is at the expense of omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids are also necessary for a healthy body. Safflower oil isn't a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

In fact, it's omega-3 fatty acids that may help prevent heart disease and stroke, according to Harvard Health. This is through reducing blood pressure, raising HDL or good cholesterol. But the reason many Americans get too many omega-6 fatty acids, says Cleveland Clinic, is because many Americans eat a large number of highly processed foods containing safflower oil, along with sunflower, soybean and corn oils.

Cutting back on processed foods may be a good way to lower your omega-6 fatty acids. Furthermore, Harvard Health says omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to protection against heart disease.

A Linoleic Acid

Safflower oil is a linoleic acid, as outlined in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences study. This omega-6 fatty acid is vital to your health, according to a study in the October 2014 journal Circulation. Beside safflower oil, linoleic acid is found in many types of nuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds and poppy seeds, along with sunflower, corn and soybean oils.

Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is a fatty acid supplement found naturally in meat and dairy products. Safflower oil naturally contains only trace amounts of CLA, says the International Journal of Molecular Sciences study.

Safflower oil can be chemically altered to produce CLA, however. Studies on CLA in humans ⁠— including CLA and sleep problems and CLA and weight loss ⁠— sometimes use natural safflower oil as a placebo, such as in an examination of various CLA studies in the February 2015 issue of Nutrition & Metabolism.

One of the studies detailed in the Nutrition & Metabolism review followed 71 obese men and women, and found no difference in those who took CLA versus those who took safflower oil. After evaluating the studies discussed in the article, the authors concluded that while animal studies showed that CLA offers consistent positive effects, the authors couldn't say the same about the human studies.

Most of the studies, the authors said, didn't show conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of CLA on human health. The only exception was for some properties CLAs offer to prevent regaining weight after it's lost. Overconsumption of CLAs, however, also is a concern, so there's no conclusive evidence that CLA consumption is safe for human health. More long-term studies are needed, the authors said.

Safflower Oil and Weight Loss

There's an old study that is still often cited in many natural health articles comparing CLA with safflower oil, and the effects of both on body composition in 35 obese, post-menopausal women. This study, published in the June 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that CLA reduced total body weight, but safflower oil reduced body mass and increased lean tissue mass.

Other studies weren't so kind to safflower oil. A December 2016 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism found that rats fed extra doses of safflower oil for up to a month gained weight and body mass. A Brazilian study on rats published in the International Journal of Cardiovascular Science in March 2017 also found that safflower oil fed to rats resulted in higher total cholesterol, higher rates of bad, or LDL, cholesterol, and a negative effect on lipid health.

A February 2013 study in the journal Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, found that rats fed a diet high in omega-6 fats like safflower oil may increase cases of obesity and metabolic disorders, including diabetes.

Safflower and Medicinal Uses

Safflower tincture has long been used in Chinese medicine. In a study in the November 2013 Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the authors looked at the historical uses of safflower to treat abdominal pain, joint pain, trauma, menstrual pain and pain following childbirth.

Safflower's active compounds contain ingredients that are thought to be anti-inflammatory, along with anticoagulants, antioxidants, anti-aging ingredients and other health-promoting qualities. The authors concluded that, while some studies have been promising, more studies on safflower's medicinal properties are needed to show how safflower oil and other properties from the plant could be used to develop new drugs.

An updated study from the April 2018 journal Electronic Physician reviewed safflower's usage in Iranian medicine, and also concluded that further studies are needed to take advantage of safflower's medical potential.

Safflower Oil and Skin

Safflower oil has long been lauded for its usefulness as a topical skin application. According to the January 2018 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, safflower oil has been shown to be a good nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) pain reliever.

The study's authors said that when topically applied, safflower oil is readily absorbed in newborns and probably has nutritional benefits. The authors suggested its anti-inflammatory qualities should be studied further for possible use in clinical practices.

A May 2018 article in the Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research followed 90 patients in Baghdad. The patients were separated into groups of 30. One group was given a cream containing 10 percent safflower oil, while a second group was given a cream containing 15 percent safflower oil. The third group served as the control group.

Participants were 73 percent female, and the majority were ages 19 to 24, although all adult age groups were represented. Skin cream with safflower oil helped sunburned skin to recover faster than the cream without safflower oil. Creams with concentrations of both 10 and 15 percent were effective. The authors found that cream with safflower oil acted as an antioxidant to restore skin health and promote aging resistance.

More Skin Benefits

Safflower oil is sometimes used to treat eczema, and the National Eczema Association says there's good reason for that. Safflower oil has a high ratio of linoleic acid to oleic acid. High linoleic acid concentrations have been shown to speed up skin repair and accelerate the development of skin barriers, while reducing the need for steroids that are often used to treat eczema.

Olive oil, in contrast, has a low ratio of linoleic acid to oleic acid, which can cause damage to the skin, according to the National Eczema Association. The organization says more studies are needed on natural oils used to prevent and treat skin conditions.

Safflower oil is used to treat acne and to promote hair and scalp growth, according to a report in the June 2017 issue of Trends in Food Science and Technology. This is because safflower oil is easily absorbed into the scalp.

Safflower Oil Takeaways

Safflower oil isn't a superfood. But according to the American Heart Association, it is a healthy cooking oil. If you're eating a processed food just because it has safflower oil, you might want to rethink it. But if you need a cooking oil with a high smoke point, safflower oil is good for most cooking needs, including making french fries and chips, because of its high oleic content, according to Iowa State University.

It also contains vitamin E. One tablespoon of safflower oil contains 4.6 milligrams of vitamin E, or 25 percent of the recommended daily value, according to the National Institutes of Health. Taken in moderation, safflower oil has many uses in cooking and may be good for your skin too.

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