Safflower Oil: Why This Fat Is On the Naughty List

by Sarah Pope MGA Affiliate linkshealthy fatsComments: 15

safflower oil, saffola oil
Safflower oil is one of the most widely available and popular vegetable oils on the planet. In India, food manufacturers market it as saffola oil, which is a blend of safflower and rice bran oil. Sometimes edible oil companies blend in soy oil as well.

In North America, safflower is available in both low oleic and high oleic form. This adds to consumer confusion much like the situation with sunflower oil.  It is my view that manufacturers pull this stunt purposely as a bewildered consumer is a more compliant one that tends to be easily lured into repetitive and often mindless food shopping.

A nonthinking consumer is Big Food’s ideal customer.

Uses of Safflower

Despite its rapid rise to fame as a modern cooking oil, safflower itself is actually one of the world’s oldest known crops, dating back to ancient Egypt circa 4000 BC.

Ancient writing tablets of the time reveal that Egyptians used what they called “white safflower” and “red safflower.” The distinction comes from the two useful parts of the plant: the pale seeds (white safflower) and the red florets (red safflowers). These first cultivators used the colorful flowers as a clothing dye.

Historical applications for the versatile plant in China are twofold. First, the florets flavor soup and rice dishes. Secondly, holistic healers use the safflower herb medicinally to “invigorate blood”. Applied to traumatic injuries as a poultice, it facilitates healing and reduces pain. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also prescribe it as a tea for treatment of fevers and reduction of phlegm. (1)

Today, safflower commonly substitutes for the sought after saffron spice. In Europe, the prevalence of this practice earned it the name “false saffron”. This is similar to the controversy surrounding true cinnamon.

It is convenient for restaurants and consumers to substitute safflower for dishes such as saffron rice because saffron is the most expensive spice in the world followed by vanilla.

The Rise of Safflower Seed Oil

While safflower is a longtime crop for food, medicine and other uses in human history, the oil is most definitely not.

The pale seeds from the safflower plant are the source of its edible oil. Commercially, manufacturers expeller press or extract the oil with toxic solvents. Some may use a combination of the two methods. Hence, safflower oil is very much an industrialized food with production processes similar to hemp seed oil, grapeseed oil and others.

The modern experimentation of pressing safflower seeds for their oil began in 1925 in the Midwest. However, oil manufacturers did not devise a profitable extraction method until three decades later. At that time, production of safflower oil moved to the Western United States and parts of the Western Canadian provinces.

California is the king of safflower oil in the United States today, producing nearly half of the total. North Dakota and Montana are a distant second and third.

The oil’s popularity began to grow in the 1960’s about the same time as the now scientifically disproven assertion that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease.

Hence, the pressing of seeds for vegetable oil gained popularity as an alternative to butter in the 1960s. (2)

It remains popular today. Many processed foods now contain safflower oil, accompanied by dubious claims about health benefits. It is an especially popular oil in USDA organic processed foods, as more health conscious consumers seek alternatives to pesticide laced and usually GMO soy, cottonseed, and canola oils in cheaper supermarket foods.

But are they, in fact, getting anything remotely healthier?

Smoke Point

The smoke point of refined safflower oil comes in at 510 F/266 C. This is extremely high and an attractive characteristic for food manufacturers.

The only fat that has a higher smoke point is refined avocado oil (520 F/271 C). Avocado oil is far more healthful, however. While some forms of refined safflower oil are dangerously high in inflammation inducing polyunsaturated fat, avocado oil is highest in monounsaturated fat.

On the other hand, unrefined and cold pressed safflower oil has a smoke point that is quite low at 225 F/105C. Semi-refined safflower oil  is not much higher with a smokepoint of 320 F/160 C. (3)

Fatty Acid Profile of Safflower Oil

The fatty acid profile of safflower oil is extremely confusing. Note the extremely wide range of each type. (4, 5)

  • Monounsaturated: (oleic acid omega-9) 13-75%
  • Polyunsaturated: (linoleic acid omega-6) 14-79%
  • Saturated: (palmitic acid) 4-10%

The reason the ranges of fatty acids in safflower oil are so broad is because of the different types. Some are high in monounsaturated oleic acid and are referred to as high oleic safflower oil. Others are highest in polyunsaturated linoleic acid. These are called low oleic or high linoleic safflower oils.

This begs the question, which safflower seed oil should you use, if any?

Low Oleic vs High Oleic Safflower Oil

Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid. Thus, high oleic safflower oil contains mostly monounsaturated (omega-9) fat.

Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid, hence high linoleic safflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fat and low oleic.

If you are wondering which is better, the answer is ideally neither.

You see, safflower oil from heirloom safflower seeds is naturally low oleic. However, as consumers have wised up to the inflammatory potential of consuming these fats in excess, manufacturers created a hybrid safflower whose seeds are high oleic with a fatty acid profile closer to olive oil.

Even the ultra cheap mega-bottles of safflower oil at Wal-Mart are now high oleic.

So, should you consume high oleic safflower oil? Not really, as it is just as industrialized as its low oleic cousin.

Of course, as with any seed oils, cold pressed, unrefined and organic is the ONLY way to go. There are few brands currently that fit this description with Eden Foods safflower oil one of the best as of this writing.

But, if you really want to consume a healthy, high oleic oil, a nonhybridized, truly traditional source would be preferable such as extra virgin olive oil!

I personally am highly skeptical of healthier living through chemistry and industrialized farming. If you feel the same, then skip the safflower oil.

Health Benefits of Safflower Oil

If you google the health benefits of safflower oil, you will find many articles that glowingly espouse its virtues. The truth is, this is just science for sale!

First of all, there are no health benefits to consuming modern refined oils. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

The high heat processing destroys anything that might be beneficial including any phenols in high oleic versions.

For safflower oil to have any benefits in the diet whatsoever, it must be cold pressed and unrefined. However, even in this state, safflower oil isn’t the best choice for an informed consumer.

The truth is that the research backing safflower oil is dubious at best. It certainly doesn’t supplant the decades of research and thousands of years of beneficial use of extra virgin olive oil.

Let’s take a look at one of the most prominent of these questionable studies.

CLA Safflower Oil Study

A common tactic researchers use when conducting a science for sale study is to pair the food being studied with another food that they already know triggers the desired health benefits. Thus, they can stealthily attribute any positive effects to the newly studied food when they actually accrue from the companion food. Incidentally, Big Pharma pulls similar types of research stunts, but that is another article for another day!

Shockingly, the highly rated, peer reviewed Journal of Clinical Nutrition published this type of flawed study. At first glance, the study is quite promising. It is a randomized trial of the effects of safflower oil consumption in fifty-five obese, post-menopausal women with type 2 diabetes. Thirty-five of the women completed the study. They consumed eight grams daily of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and high linoleic (low oleic) safflower oil for 16 weeks each.

The results of the study claim that the dietary intake of 8 grams of safflower oil (SAF) per day for 16 weeks improved glycemia, inflammation, and blood lipids, exactly as the researchers initially hypothesized.

Imagine that?

No diet or exercise accompanied this supplementation either.

Sounds too good to be true right? Are you ready to run out to the store and load up the pantry with safflower oil? Hold your horses.

CLA Safflower Oil Diet

Reading the study more closely beyond the sound bite, made for TV conclusion reveals that along with safflower oil, the patients consumed the same amount (8 gram doses) of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This incredibly beneficial fatty acid is found in grass-fed beef and butter. And yes, you guessed it. CLA improves lean body mass and blood work related to metabolic syndrome.

However, the researchers attribute no health effects to the CLA. They simply conclude the following:

We conclude that eight grams of SAF [safflower oil] daily improved glycemia, inflammation, and blood lipids indicating that small changes in dietary fat quality may augment diabetes treatments to improve risk factors for diabetes-related complications. (6)

At least three experts have called out the scam, which has not surprisingly given rise to the safflower oil weight loss diet and numerous safflower oil supplements. Paid spokepersons have pumped at least one of these on popular health talk shows like Dr. Oz.

Safflower Oil for Weight Loss?

Dr. Mark Cook from the University of Wisconsin took issue with the results by pointing out that in his own similar experiments, a vegetable oil like safflower is used as the negative control! Replacing only 5-10% of vegetable oil consumption with CLA improves fat accumulation and inflammation substantially.

He goes on to say that if the oil from safflower seeds has any positive effects whatsoever on body composition, it is very small compared to the effects of CLA.

Dr. Michael Pariza, founder of the field of CLA research, concurs. He suggests that linoleic acid, the major fatty acid in safflower oil, is the control in the study. Its weight loss and inflammation reducing benefits are clearly not as potent as CLA.

Another problem with the study is that even though randomized, it is not placebo controlled. Dr. H. Keizer of Stepan Lipid Nutrition, points out this glaring oversight, commenting that “we have no idea what a placebo would have done” with regard to the results of the study in question. (7)

CLA Safflower Oil Supplements 

I noticed something even more ironic when examining a few of the CLA safflower oil supplements currently on the market seemingly spawned by this (intentionally?) misleading study. The type of oil in these supplements isn’t even the type used in the research!

That’s right, the study used low oleic safflower oil plus CLA and the supplements use high oleic safflower oil and CLA. This lends even further credibility to the assertion that CLA is the beneficial fat in these supplements, not SAF.

No wonder consumers’ heads are spinning with regard to this supposedly healthy oil!

Skip the Saffola Oil

In sum, whether you are living in India where brightly colored bottles of blended saffola oil are sadly gaining market share over healthy traditional choices like ghee or here in the USA where researchers misleadingly credit safflower oil for health benefits actually traceable to conjugated linoleic acid, it is best to steer clear of this industrialized darling.

Safflower oil is neither a traditional fat nor a modern panacea to help beat back the scourges of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and inflammation.

No matter if low oleic or high oleic, it is a food with little nutrition and dubious health benefits. Wise consumers well versed in healthy fats ensure that it plays little to no role in their diet.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.

Sarah earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.

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