For years, safflower oil has been 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 the research on fats and oils in the last few decades has been misguided.
Vegetable oil, in general, is not good for you, 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 safflower plant has a long history, with records of safflower crops stretching back to the time of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt[*]. Safflower used to be used as an orange dye, and as a cheap substitute for the precious spice saffron.
Since the 1960s, safflower oil has become one of the main sources of vegetable oil. Like other seed oils, safflower oil is expeller pressed to extract the oil from the safflower seed.
Then it’s 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 that’s also used in salad dressings, margarine, and skincare products.
Fatty Acids in Safflower Oil
The building blocks of fats are called fatty acids. When you “burn fat” on, say, a high-fat ketogenic diet — your body breaks down the dietary fat into fatty acids through a process called lipolysis, and then burns them for fuel.
You also use fatty acids 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 dietary saturated fat and heart disease[*][*]. In fact, saturated fats might be protective against stroke and alcohol-induced liver disease[*][*].
2) Monounsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA)
MUFAs like olive oil and avocado have a heart-healthy reputation, and rightfully so.
Dietary MUFAs lower blood sugar 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.
3) Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA)
Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
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.
Omega-3s, for instance, are essential for your heart and brain.
Here’s a fun fact: the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA comprise a significant part of total brain weight[*].
Omega-6s are also 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 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 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)
The Truth About Safflower Oil Health Claims
Keeping in mind safflower oil’s high linoleic acid content, let’s review the claims that safflower oil is good for metabolism, heart health, inflammation, and cooking.
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[*]. Let’s take a closer look at that study.
Researchers randomized 35 diabetic, postmenopausal women to receive daily supplements of either safflower oil or conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Blood sugar, cholesterol, and inflammation were measured before and after the 16-week intervention period[*].
What did they find? A significant reduction in average blood glucose. Only in the safflower oil group.
The researchers were surprised by this finding:
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.
But the real issue with the study was size. 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 thirteen completed the second! Because of the small size, the drop in blood sugar could easily have been a fluke.
There’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 your 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 type 2 diabetes. An example will help explain why.
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[*].
In addition to boosting body fat, linoleic acid also increases inflammation.
Claim #2: Safflower Oil Reduces Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is a low-level immune response in the absence of a specific disease and appears to underlie a lot of common health problems. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s — they’re all linked to inflammation[*].
Recall 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.
Heart disease risk often doesn’t track with 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.
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[*].
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, 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:
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
#3 Keto-Friendly Everyday Fats
If you’re on a keto diet for weight loss, lower blood sugar, increased energy, or better cognitive function, you’re eating more calories 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
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 the healthier fats listed above. Your body and brain will be better off.