The Safflower Plant: Vegetable Oil, Cosmetic, Dye, and Insulin

Updated on September 22, 2017
AliciaC profile image

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 red safflower
A red safflower | Source


Safflower has been grown as an agricultural crop for thousands of years. It was a popular plant in Ancient Egypt and Greece. The plant has an attractive yellow, orange, or red flower head containing multiple flowers. It 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 may 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 can be harvested from their seeds. The technology has been abandoned for now but may be investigated again in the future.

A yellow safflower
A yellow safflower | Source

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

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, the same family to which sunflowers and daisies belong.

The flowers 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.

Safflower seeds 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.

Another safflower plant
Another safflower plant | Source

Safflower Oil

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 fats (especially linoleic acid) and another that is high in monounsaturated fats (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 is good on salads too, and like other monounsaturated fats has an important health benefit. It lowers the blood level of LDL cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) without affecting the concentration of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol).

Harvesting Safflower

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".

What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

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 doesn't make insulin. This 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. It's thought that 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.

Type 1 diabetics 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 works well, but the hormone obtained from microbes is expensive to produce.

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. There are a variety of treatments for type 2 diabetes. In some cases insulin is prescribed.

What Is Type 2 Diabetes?

Safflower and Insulin

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 plants, enabling them to make insulin. The researchers formed a new biotechnology company, SemBioSys, 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 safflowers could produce more than one kilogram of insulin, an amount sufficient to treat 2,500 diabetics for one year. They also said that 16,000 acres of safflowers could satisfy the world's demand for insulin. Unfortunately, the company ceased operations in 2012.

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's been suggested that the act of insulin purification was too difficult or 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. | Source

Transgenic Plants and Pharming

The creation of transgenic plants—those containing a gene or genes from unrelated organisms—worries some people. They are concerned that the altered plants may enter the food chain or interact with other plants, such as by cross pollination. The technology does have the advantage of producing medically important proteins such as insulin, however. The use of transgenic plants 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. It might be wondered why we need plants to make proteins for us. One reason is that growing plants is 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. There is one advantage to obtaining proteins from bacteria instead of plants, however. The purification process for the bacterial proteins is very efficient.

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 | Source

Safflower in the Future

Perhaps the technology for producing insulin in safflower plants will be investigated again and any problems with the technology solved. It's a shame that the potential for making a medically useful substance has 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.


  • "Safflower." Purdue University. (accessed September 22, 2017).
  • "Monounsaturated Fat." American Heart Association. (accessed September 22, 2017).
  • "Safflower." Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (accessed September 22, 2017).
  • "Diabetes." Mayo Clinic. (accessed September 22, 2017).
  • "New Source of Insulin Blossoming on the Praries." Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (accessed September 22nd, 2017).

© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • sofs profile image

      sofs 5 years ago

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      daisynicolas 5 years ago from Alaska

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      StellaSee 5 years ago from California

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • profile image

      stessily 5 years ago

      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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      StellaSee 5 years ago from California

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Imogen French 5 years ago from Southwest England

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev G 5 years ago from Wales, UK

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

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      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 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      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 :-)