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Safflower Plant Facts and Uses: Vegetable Oil, Dye, and Insulin

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

A Useful and Interesting Plant

Safflower has been grown as an agricultural crop for thousands of years. It was a popular plant in Ancient Egypt and Greece. It has an attractive yellow, orange, or red flower head containing multiple flowers. The plant also has broad, dark green leaves with spines on their edges. A dye can be extracted from its petals and a vegetable oil can be pressed from its seeds. This oil is useful in cosmetics as well as in the kitchen.

Safflower might one day be helpful in the production of insulin for treating people with diabetes. Scientists have managed to insert the human insulin gene into safflower plants. The gene becomes active and the plants produce insulin, which is present in their seeds. The technology has been abandoned for now but might be investigated again in the future.

Safflower seeds are sometimes used as birdseed for feeders. Many smaller birds will eat them. Squirrels, blackbirds, and grackles typically avoid them. Experts say that birds may need to be introduced to safflower seeds gradually.

Features of the Safflower Plant

Safflower has the scientific name Carthamus tinctorius. It's an annual plant that reaches a height of one to four feet. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region, Africa, and Asia but is grown in many other parts of the world today. It's a member of the aster family, or the Asteraceae (also known as the Compositae), the same family to which sunflowers and daisies belong. Members of the family have composite flower heads, or ones containing multiple flowers. The heads are technically known as inflorescences. The individual flowers in an inflorescence are sometimes referred to as florets.

The flowers (or florets) of safflower have projecting stigmas and styles and the mature leaves have spines on their margins, making the plant somewhat look like a thistle. The spines also make it difficult for someone to harvest the plant by hand, unless the person wears protective gloves. Safflower is adapted for life in dry environments and has a long taproot to reach water sources far below the soil surface.

The seeds of the plant are small and white. They contain a high concentration of protein as well as oil. The oil is used as a cooking and salad oil. It's also used in baking and to make margarine. The meal that is left after the oil is extracted from the seeds is often fed to livestock.

Safflower Oil Facts, Types, and Uses

Safflower oil has a light texture and is clear and colorless. It has no odor and almost no flavor. Since it has such neutral characteristics, it's a popular oil in cosmetics. Safflower oil doesn't turn yellow with age, so it's also useful in varnishes and paints.

Two types of safflower oil are available commercially—one that is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially linoleic acid) and another that is high in monounsaturated fatty acids (especially oleic acid). These different types of oils are created in plants that have been produced as a result of selective breeding, which is the breeding of plants that have the desired characteristics.

Heating oils to high temperatures can damage them and may even produce dangerous substances, but monounsaturated oils and saturated fats resist the damage better than polyunsaturated oils. Therefore, while monounsaturated safflower oil can be used to cook foods, polyunsaturated safflower oil should be used only on foods at room temperature or lower, such as salads.

High oleic safflower oil (oil that is highly monounsaturated) is good on salads, too, and like other monounsaturated oils it has an important health benefit. It lowers the blood level of LDL cholesterol. This is sometimes referred to as "bad" cholesterol because it can trigger the buildup of plaque in blood vessels when it's too concentrated. HDL cholesterol doesn’t have this effect.

Natural Fabric Dyes

In the past, a dye was obtained from dry safflower petals to color clothing, food, medicines, and cosmetics. Today safflower is used by people who like to color fibers for clothing and crafts with natural dyes. The flowers contain a yellow dye. Orange or red flowers contain a red dye as well as a yellow one. The red dye is called catharmin today but was known as catharmine in the past. As a food additive, it's known as natural red 26.

To extract the yellow dye, the petals are soaked in water. Once the yellow dye has been removed, the petals are soaked in an alkaline (basic) solution, such as one containing ammonia or sodium carbonate. They are then placed in an acidic solution containing vinegar. The last two soakings extract and intensify the red dye. Dyeing with safflower is time consuming but—according to people who do it—very rewarding. The colors are not lightfast, though.

Safflower was once used to color the tape wrapped around bundles of legal documents, creating the original "red tape".

Type 1 Diabetes and Insulin

Obtaining insulin from sources besides the human body is very important in order to help people with diabetes. In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas either doesn't make insulin or makes an insignificant amount. The hormone is needed to help glucose from digested food leave the blood and enter the body's cells. It increases the permeability of the cell membrane (the outer covering of the cell) to glucose. Without insulin, the blood glucose (or blood sugar) level becomes too high and the cells don't receive enough glucose to use for energy production.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the body mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that are responsible for insulin production. The disorder most commonly begins in children and young adults, but it can appear in people of any age.

People with type 1 diabetes need to receive replacement insulin. At the moment, this insulin is usually harvested from genetically engineered bacteria and yeasts, although it's sometimes obtained from the pancreas of animals. This substitute insulin can work well, but the hormone obtained from microbes is expensive to produce.

Type 2 Diabetes

In people with type 2 diabetes, the beta cells in the pancreas are still present but the body's cells are no longer responding properly to the insulin that is made. This condition is known as insulin resistance. The pancreas may make more insulin, but it can't make enough to trigger the cells to absorb sufficient glucose.

Type 2 diabetes most often appears in middle aged and older people, but it may also appear in younger people, including children. A variety of treatments for the disorder exist. In some cases, insulin is prescribed.

Insulin From Safflower

In 2010, scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada announced that they had found a way to incorporate the human insulin gene into cells of safflower plants. Even though this gene doesn't normally occur in plant cells, it becomes active in safflower cells, enabling them to make insulin. The process made safflower a transgenic plant.

The researchers formed a new biotechnology company called SemBioSys Genetics, or simply SemBioSys. The company aimed to produce and study a range of safflower products as well as the plant's insulin. The insulin was nicknamed "Prairie Insulin" because safflowers grow so well on the Canadian prairies.

The researchers claimed that one acre of safflower plants could produce more than one kilogram of insulin and that this amount was sufficient to treat 2,500 diabetics for one year. They also said that 16,000 acres could satisfy the world's demand for insulin. Unfortunately, the company ceased operations in 2012 and its website no longer exists.

It's hard to find out exactly why the idea of obtaining insulin from safflowers was abandoned by SemBioSys. Reports at the time indicated that the process was going well and that the insulin made by the genetically modified plants was identical to that made by humans. Even the Canadian government was supportive of the project. It has been suggested that the act of insulin purification from the seeds was too difficult or—perhaps even more significantly—too expensive for the company, although this is only an assumption.

The pancreas is the yellow structure in this diagram. If someone's pancreas no longer makes insulin, they must get the hormone from another source in order to survive.

The pancreas is the yellow structure in this diagram. If someone's pancreas no longer makes insulin, they must get the hormone from another source in order to survive.

Transgenic Plants and Pharming

The creation of transgenic plants or microbes—those containing a gene or genes from unrelated organisms as a result of technology—worries some people. For example, people are concerned that altered plants may enter the food chain or interact with other plants by cross pollination. The technology does have the advantage of producing medically important proteins such as insulin, however. The use of transgenic organisms is increasing rapidly.

Growing transgenic plants (or animals) in order to produce pharmaceutical drugs is sometimes referred to as ”pharming.” The name is derived from the words pharmaceutical and farming. The medicinal substances made by genetically modified plants are referred to as plant-made pharmaceuticals, or PMPs.

Proteins for human use are already made by genetically modified bacteria that are cultured in large vats. In addition, the purification process for bacterial proteins is very efficient. It might therefore be wondered why we need plants to make proteins for us.

One advantage of obtaining desirable chemicals from plants is that growing plants is often less expensive than maintaining bacteria in specialized equipment. Another is that the plant versions of proteins are often more suitable for human use. This is because plant cells are more similar to our cells in structure and function. There are some significant differences between bacterial cells and the cells of plants and humans.

Instead of growing whole plants, researchers exploring pharming sometimes culture plant cells in reactors for their experiments. These genetically modified cells are kept in a contained environment, like the bacteria used in similar projects.

Sparrows at a feeder; the white seeds are safflower seeds

Sparrows at a feeder; the white seeds are safflower seeds

Potential Uses of Safflower

Perhaps the technology for producing insulin in safflower plants will be investigated again and any problems with the technology solved. I hope this is the case, though there‘s no sign that this is going to happen soon. It's a shame that the potential for making a medically useful substance may have been lost.

Safflower plants are already useful due to their ability to supply a helpful oil, an interesting dye, and nutrition for birds. Supplying insulin might be an additional benefit of the plants in the future.

References

  • Safflower information from Purdue University
  • Facts about monounsaturated fat from the American Heart Association
  • Safflower cameo at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
  • Diabetes information from the Mayo Clinic
  • Insulin production by safflowers in Canada from CTV News

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Which method was used in the production of insulin in safflower? Was it electroporation, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, biolistics, or the microinjection method?

Answer: As far as I know, this information wasn't shared with the public. The researchers may have wanted to keep the process a secret. Their names are given in the last reference in the article. You would have to contact the scientists to see if they are willing to share the information.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 15, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, sofs! I appreciate your visit.

Sophie on May 14, 2012:

Very interesting and informative article. The clinical trials for insulin production was news to me.. thanks for that update. Enjoyed your hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 05, 2012:

Hi, daisynicolas. I have read that safflower is sometimes used instead of saffron even though it doesn't have the same taste, but I didn't know that you could buy it in some supermarkets! Thanks for the information.

daisynicolas from Alaska on May 05, 2012:

Do you know that safflower is the cheaper version of saffron? Not the same aroma, not the same taste, almost the same color. You can mostly find them in the Mexican section of your supermarkets.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 05, 2012:

Thank you for the up vote and the share, Peggy. Yes, the safflower plant is beautiful, and its future could be very exciting!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 05, 2012:

I am familiar with safflower oil but never knew that it had such beautiful flowers nor that the leaves were so spikey. This will be a major breakthough if insulin can be made from these plants and at such a lower cost than compared to the present. Thanks for this interesting and informative hub. Up votes and shared.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 04, 2012:

No, it certainly wasn't a dumb question, Stella! I'm looking forward to seeing how the safflower plant is used in the future.

StellaSee from California on May 04, 2012:

I guess it wasn't that dumb of a question eh? ahaha. We shall see then! Thanks Alicia!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 03, 2012:

Hi, stessily. Thank you very much for the comment. I use safflower oil too, but only the high oleic form. It is a very useful oil, especially when the oil needs to to be heated safely!

stessily on May 03, 2012:

AliciaC, Safflower oil and sunflower oil are my two favourite oils. I've long used them in recipes because they are healthy and also because they are flavour enhancers and do not overwhelm any recipes. I'm pleased to see this tribute to the lovely, useful safflower plant.

Appreciatively, Stessily

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 02, 2012:

Hi, Stella. Thanks for an interesting question! It's hard to predict what the final safflower product will be, since it's not available yet. I think the producers will have to be very careful about the form in which the insulin is supplied. It will have to be a suitable form for diabetics, easy to store without becoming rancid, etc. The reports do say that using genetically altered safflower to make insulin is much cheaper than other methods that are being used to produce the hormone. It will be very interesting to see how - and if - the situation develops!

StellaSee from California on May 01, 2012:

Hi Alicia this might be a dumb question but so if you just consume safflower oil would that be effective against preventing diabetes? Or did they discover that using the safflower is a cheap way to make mass amounts of insulin? This is interesting!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 01, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, Om Paramapoonya. I'm hoping that the tests are successful too, and that the insulin that's made from the safflowers becomes widely available!

Om Paramapoonya on May 01, 2012:

It's very fascinating that safflower plants can be genetically engineered to produce the insulin hormone. As someone who's genetically predisposed to diabetes, I really hope these studies continue to be successful and become widely acknowledged. Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 29, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, Imogen! I think that safflower plants are beautiful, too, especially the ones that have orange flowers. It's great that they are useful plants as well.

Imogen French from Southwest England on April 29, 2012:

Excellent and very informative hub. It is good to know that genetic engineering is working with nature in a positive way. The safflower is a beautiful and very useful plant, thanks for writing about it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2012:

Thank you very much, Nell!! Yes, I hope that scientists prove that the insulin made by safflowers helps diabetics, and also that the insulin can be supplied to countries around the world more cheaply than the current insulin supplies. It would be a wonderful example of beneficial genetic manipulation!

Nell Rose from England on April 27, 2012:

As I was reading this I was saying, Wow! How fantastic is that? to be able to get the plant to produce insulin is wonderful, I think this sort of genetic manipulation is great, and will help thousands of people the world over. Fantastic hub, voted and shared, nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2012:

Thank you for both the comment and the vote, drbj. As always, I appreciate your visit very much!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on April 27, 2012:

What a marvelous plant is the safflower, and what a marvelous hub you wrote, Alicia, explaining its many benefits as both a vegetable oil, commonly known, and as a potential insulin replacement. Who knew. Voted Up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2012:

Hi, theraggededge. It is a very strange thought that a plant is producing insulin, a chemical that isn't normally present in the plant kingdom! Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2012:

Thank you for the comment and the vote, teaches! Yes, as far as oil safety is concerned consumers are often left uninformed, although some oil manufacturers do include information on their websites about the safe heating temperature for each type of oil. I'm happy that my favourite oil maker does describe oil safety on its bottle labels. It's an important topic!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2012:

Hi, Prasetio. Thank you very much for all the votes! Safflower oil may not be available in some places, but it's a common product in my local stores. Hopefully in the future safflower will be useful for diabetics, although the clinical tests haven't been completed yet. The results of the initial tests are good, though.

Bev G from Wales, UK on April 27, 2012:

How interesting! Lots of good info here. I didn't know that plants could produce insulin in that way.

Dianna Mendez on April 27, 2012:

This plant is holds many benefits for mankind. I didn't know that if over heated it would cause harmful chemicals, they should post this on the bottle. Thanks for the information, very interesting. Voted up!

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on April 27, 2012:

Very informative hub, Alicia. I had never heard about Safflower. I am glad to know this flower useful for diabetics. Thanks to introduce Safflower with us. Good job and rated up (useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting). Cheers :-)

Prasetio