For years, safflower oil was marketed with a laundry list of health benefits. Many claim that this vegetable oil is supposed to improve your metabolism, lower cholesterol, and support heart health because it’s free of saturated fat.
However, a lot of medical advice on fats and oils in the last few decades has been misguided.
Vegetable oils can have many adverse health effects, and of all the vegetable oils, safflower oil is perhaps the worst. That’s because it has more linoleic acid — an inflammatory and easily spoiled polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) — than any other oil on the market[*].
What Is Safflower Oil?
The first record of the safflower plant (also called carthamus tinctorius) stretches back to the time of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt[*]. Safflower was once used as an orange dye and as a cheap substitute for the precious spice saffron.
Starting in the 1960s, safflower oil became one of the main sources of vegetable oil. Like other seed oils, safflower oil is expeller pressed to extract oil from safflower seeds.
The oil is then refined, a process which removes vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and most of the oil’s flavor. You’re left with a neutral cooking oil used in salad dressings, margarine, and various skincare products.
Fatty Acids in Safflower Oil
The building blocks of fats are called fatty acids. When you “burn fat” on a high-fat ketogenic diet, your body breaks down dietary fat into fatty acids through a process called lipolysis, which can then be used for fuel[*]. Fatty acids are also used to make cell membranes, insulate your brain cells, and shuttle nutrients throughout your body.
Not all fatty acids are created equal. There are three main classes of fatty acid, and each has different effects on your body:
1. Saturated Fatty Acid (SFA)
Saturated fats are found in animal products, butter, and coconut oil.
Since the mid-20th century, the American Heart Association has been staunchly against saturated fat. Conventional wisdom has been that you should eliminate SFAs from your diet to decrease your risk of heart attack[*].
One of the main health claims behind safflower oil is that it’s low in saturated fat.
However, in the last few years, several large scientific reviews found no link between saturated fat intake and heart disease[*][*]. In fact, saturated fats might be protective against stroke and alcohol-induced liver disease[*][*].
2. Monounsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA)
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), found in olive oil and avocado, have a heart-healthy reputation. Dietary MUFAs lower blood sugar levels, improve blood lipid levels, reduce blood pressure, and may improve your risk of heart attack[*]. The Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest and best-studied diets, is rich in MUFAs.
Safflower oil is quite low in MUFAs, but it is often marketed as being high in monounsaturated acids (also called “high oleic safflower oil).
3. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA)
Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
The two main PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6. Both are essential for the health of your body, but only when consumed in the right amounts. Ideally, you should consume the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as omega-6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, most people consume too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s, which can be harmful to your health.
Omega Fats and the O6:O3 Ratio
Most people are familiar with the term “omega fats.” You need omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for your body to run properly. For example, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are essential for your heart health and brain, comprising a significant part of total brain weight[*]. Omega-6s, on the other hand, are essential for skin health, carbohydrate metabolism, and reproductive health[*].
But here’s the key point: you need very few omega-6 fats (about 0.2 grams of safflower oil, for instance) to meet your body’s functional requirements[*].
Most people get many times the omega-6s that they need, and that’s not good. Excess omega-6 promotes inflammation, obesity, and heart disease risk[*].
Most of these negative side effects, researchers believe, stem from the omega-6:omega-3 ratio. When you eat too many omega-6s (vegetable oil) — and not enough omega-3s (wild-caught fish) — your ratio gets too high.
The optimal O6:O3 ratio is about 1:1. The average American ratio is 20:1[*] — that’s 20 times more inflammatory omega-6s than you need. Researchers have linked an elevated O6:O3 ratio to the obesity epidemic in the United States[*].
Most omega-6 in the American diet comes from linoleic acid — the primary fat in vegetable oils. Safflower oil is the worst of the vegetable oils.
Here’s the fatty acid profile of safflower seed oil[*]:
- 79% polyunsaturated fatty acid, or PUFA (mostly linoleic acid)
- 12% monounsaturated fatty acid, or MUFA (mostly oleic acid)
- 9% saturated fatty acid, or SFA (mostly palmitic acid)
Debunking Safflower Oil Health Claims
Here’s a hard look at the claims that safflower oil is good for metabolism, heart health, inflammation, and cooking. You’ll quickly find that the negative effects of safflower oil far outweigh the positives.
Claim #1: Safflower Oil Improves Metabolic Health
People in favor of vegetable oil often reference a 2011 study published in Clinical Nutrition that found safflower oil improved metabolic health[*]. Here’s a closer look at that study.
Researchers gave 35 diabetic, postmenopausal women daily supplements of either safflower oil or conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and inflammation were measured before and after the 16-week intervention period[*].
What did they find? Those who received the safflower oil supplements saw a significant reduction in average blood glucose levels.
The researchers were surprised by this finding, stating:
The dramatic physiological effect of SAF [safflower oil] was unexpected because the intake of linoleic acid typically consumed in the American diet is adequate when compared to dietary recommendations.
Considering the amount of omega-6 dietary fats Americans consume, “adequate” is an understatement.
Here’s where the study falls short: When it comes to statistics, size matters. Small studies aren’t powered to detect meaningful changes — and this study was a very small study.
Only 27 women completed the first supplementation trial for safflower oil — and only 13 completed the second. Because of the small size, the drop in blood sugar could easily have been a fluke.
Here’s another issue: the decreased inflammation may have been statistically significant relative to the controls, but the absolute change was unimpressive — as little as a 0.3 point reduction. That doesn’t translate to a meaningful effect on inflammation levels.
These concerns should, at the very least, make you suspicious of the “safflower oil is metabolically healthy” conclusion, especially when you consider the science against linoleic acid, the main component of safflower oil.
How Linoleic Acid Promotes Obesity
Recall that, thanks to vegetable oils, Americans consume an O6:O3 ratio of about 20:1. This ratio has been linked to the obesity epidemic and a rise in type 2 diabetes[*]. An example study will help explain why:
In one study, when vegetable oil was added to a daily smoothie, both lean and overweight people gained weight[*]. And when people switched out animal fats for safflower oil, it increased their weight, risk of cardiovascular disease, and risk of death from all causes[*].
Claim #2: Safflower Oil Reduces Inflammation
Many health claims state that high-linoleic safflower oil is anti-inflammatory. Therefore, people look to this oil to decrease inflammation. In some cases, people have even started using safflower as an essential oil for skincare, although there is little data surrounding the benefits surrounding topical applications.
Chronic inflammation is a low-level immune response that appears to underlie a lot of common health problems. Cancer, body fat, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s — they’re all linked to inflammation[*].
Remember that researchers looked at inflammation in the pro-safflower study, measuring an inflammatory marker called C-Reactive Protein (CRP)[*]. CRP, it was reported, decreased with safflower oil supplementation.
But when you look at the data tables, CRP actually went up in the larger safflower group of 27 women. Only in the other, much smaller group of 13 women did CRP decrease.
Furthermore, a recent research review found that eating more linoleic acid (the main component of safflower oil and most vegetable oils) increased inflammation instead of decreasing it[*].
Claim #3: Safflower Oil Is Good For Your Heart
For a healthy heart: the American Heart Association says to eat a lot of PUFAs and avoid saturated fat[*]. To support their case, they point to data showing high-PUFA vegetable oils lower both LDL cholesterol (LDL-C) and total cholesterol (TC)[*][*].
However, the link between cholesterol and heart disease is getting weaker and weaker.
A rise in heart disease risk often doesn’t correlate with a rise in LDL-C (“bad cholesterol”). The better measure is LDL-P, or the number of low-density lipoprotein particles in the bloodstream. With LDL-P, you’re actually measuring the number of atherogenic particles, not just the cholesterol inside of them. The data is fairly clear on this point[*].
The other issue is inflammation. Cholesterol particles only oxidize and cause plaques in the face of inflammation.
Replacing saturated animal fats with safflower oil increases your risk of heart disease and death from all causes[*].
Vegetable oil contributes to heart disease risk in a few ways:
- By causing inflammation, necessary for the formation of arterial plaques[*]
- By causing obesity, a well-established heart disease risk factor[*]
- By causing insulin resistance and diabetes — both strongly linked to heart disease[*]
Safflower oil is not good for your heart. It gets even worse when you cook with safflower oil.
Claim #4: Safflower Is a Healthy Cooking Oil
Visit heart.org — home of the AHA — and you’ll find a list of healthy cooking oils[*]. Spoiler alert: they’re all vegetable oils. Even the USDA (or MyPlate.gov) recommends using seed oils for cooking.
The problem with using vegetable oils to cook is oxidation. PUFAs are very fragile; they break down and spoil (become oxidized) easily[*].
Oxidized fats release free radicals into your system, which causes widespread inflammation. Your LDL particles also pick up oxidized fats, which contributes to heart disease[*]. You’re best off never heating PUFAs, as this will cause inflammation.
The Best Keto Healthy Fat Sources
Vegetable oils are off the table on a healthy keto diet. Here are some better options.
#1 Cook With Sat Fats and MUFAs
For high-heat cooking, a fat needs to have:
- High stability (it won’t break down when heated)
- A high smoke point
Saturated fats are the most stable, which makes them tolerant to high heat and perfect for cooking. Here are three fats that pass these tests:
- Coconut oil or palm oil
- Grass-fed ghee (butter contains dairy proteins that burn at higher heat)
- Lard or tallow
These fats can all tolerate very high-heat cooking without breaking down and becoming inflammatory.
#2 Be A PUFA Detective
Vegetable oils are everywhere: in margarine, cookies, crackers, soups, and fried rice at your favorite Chinese joint.
Be vigilant when it comes to omega-6s. Read labels, ask questions at restaurants, and avoid hydrogenated (and partially hydrogenated) trans fats.
Here are vegetable oils to avoid:
#3 Keto-Friendly Everyday Fats
If you’re following the keto diet for weight loss, lower blood sugar, increased energy, or better cognitive function, most of your calories will come from fat. Fat helps you feel satiated and provides fatty acids for energy when you’ve run out of blood glucose.
But as you just learned, not all fats are created equal. Too many PUFAs — like safflower oil — can negate the positive effects of the ketogenic diet.
That’s why most of your diet should be healthy MUFAs and SFAs like:
- Coconut oil (SFA)
- MCT oil (SFA) — stimulates ketone production
- Olive oil (MUFA)
- Butter and ghee (SFA)
- Red palm oil (SFA and MUFA)
- Cottage cheese (SFA)
- Avocados and avocado oil (MUFA)
- Nuts and nut butter (MUFA) — in moderation though, because nuts also contain PUFA
The best part is: these keto fats taste better than bland safflower oil anyway.
Say No To Safflower
Safflower is marketed as a healthy cooking oil. Even the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends to use safflower oil as a heart-healthy fat.
Unfortunately, vegetable oils are incredibly inflammatory, and safflower oil is one of the worst offenders. The excess omega 6 PUFAs in safflower oil promote obesity[*]. The linoleic acid increases inflammation[*]. And cooked or uncooked, vegetable oils accelerate the progression of heart disease[*].
Swap your safflower oil and other vegetable oils for healthier fats, including saturated fats like coconut oil, ghee, and avocado oil. Your body and brain will be better off.