Sesame oil is a popular edible oil that adds a rich, nutty flavor to many dishes. If used properly and in moderation (as it is high in omega-6 fats) this oil can provide certain health benefits.
What Is Sesame Oil?
Derived from sesame (Sesamum indicum), a tall annual herb from the Pedaliaceae family, sesame oil is commonly used as a food ingredient and condiment, as well as for medicinal uses. The sesame plant has been cultivated for thousands of years, and is believed to be the world's oldest plant used as an oil.
Ancient Egyptians used it for pain as early as 1500 B.C. and, in China, it's been used for food, medicine and ink for more than 3,000 years. While in ancient times sesame and its various forms was particularly valued for its medicinal uses, Greek and Roman soldiers carried it on long marches in the form of a honey-and-seed energy bar.1 It also was believed to be an elixir to extend youth and enhance beauty.
Today, sesame grows extensively in Asia, particularly in China, Burma and India. It is also one of the chief commercial crops in Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria.2 Sesame oil is derived from the plant's small, flat and oval seeds, which have a nutty taste and a crunchy texture. There are two types of sesame oil: (1) light sesame oil, made from raw sesame seeds and has a light nutty flavor, and (2) dark sesame oil, made from toasted sesame seeds and has a stronger flavor and aroma.3
Uses of Sesame Oil
Sesame oil has been used for centuries in Asian cuisine. It also has medicinal purposes, especially in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is used as a base oil for about 90 percent of the herbal oils.
In Ayurvedic therapy, sesame oil is renowned for its ability to strengthen and detoxify the body and ensure the proper functioning of all the vital organs. It's also used in sacred and religious ceremonies. Today, sesame oil is a common component of skin and massage oils, hair care products, cosmetics, soaps, perfumes and sunscreens. Sesame oil has great moisturizing, soothing and emollient qualities.
In aromatherapy, it is popularly used as a massage oil and a carrier oil for essential oils. Here are other uses for sesame oil:
• Skin moisturizer. Apply it to your skin to keep it soft and smooth and help prevent wrinkles from forming. You can also add it to your bath water to help treat cracked heels and dry knees and elbows. Sesame oil also assists in soothing burns and helps prevent skin-related disorders.4
• Helps remove toxins from your mouth. It is traditionally recommended for oil pulling. (However, I prefer using coconut oil for this because it tastes better.)
• Natural sunscreen. Apply the oil all over your face and body. You may need to reapply it, though, as the oil is easily removed, especially after heavily perspiring or jumping into water.5
• Skin detoxifier. Oil-soluble toxins are said to be attracted to sesame seed oil molecules. Apply sesame oil on your skin, leave it for 15 minutes and then wash it off with warm water.6
• Boosts your scalp and hair health. Massage the oil into your scalp and hair to keep your locks strong and shiny. It also effectively helps relieve dry scalp, dandruff and hair loss.7
Composition of Sesame Oil
Sesame oil contains high levels of natural antioxidants called sesamol, sesamolin and sesamin oils. Sesamin is a lignin with anti-inflammatory properties, and contains vitamin E, which helps keep your skin strong and supple.8
Meanwhile, sesamol possesses over two dozen beneficial pharmacologically active properties, most of which work to improve cardiovascular health. Sesame oil contains 15 percent saturated fat, 42 percent oleic acid and 43 percent omega-6 linoleic acid, with a composition similar to peanut oil. It is also loaded with B-complex vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine and folic acid.9
It's rich in amino acids that are essential in building up proteins, and minerals like iron, copper, calcium, manganese, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus and zinc.10
Benefits of Sesame Oil
Sesame oil has natural antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant properties, and many studies prove its therapeutic and health-promoting benefits. Some of the potential health benefits you can find on sesame in the medical literature are:
•Diabetes — A 2006 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that sesame oil used as the sole oil in your diet helps with lowering both blood pressure and plasma glucose in hypertensive diabetics.11
•Multiple sclerosis (MS) — In mice studies, sesame oil helped protect mice from developing autoimmune encephalomyelitis, leading researchers to believe that it may react similarly in human patients with MS.12
Other research indicates that it also might be effective in managing Huntington's disease, a fatal disorder that kills brain cells.13
•Atherosclerosis — The sesamol in sesame oil was found to have an impact on the atherosclerotic process, in that its fatty acid and non-ester lipid components appeared to inhibit atherosclerosis lesions when mice were put on a sesame seed diet.14
•Cancer — High concentrations of sesomol and sesamin in sesame oil have been found to induce mitochondrial apoptosis in colon cancer, as well as in prostate, breast, lung, leukemia, multiple myeloma and pancreatic cancers.15,16,17,18,19
How to Make Sesame Oil
Sesame seeds are pressed and crushed to release the oils. There are many processing methods for this oil, which either involve manually intensive techniques or chemical extraction methods.
Some common techniques are cold pressing, hot pressing or toasting the seeds.20 A large number of seeds is needed to produce every ounce of this oil. When buying sesame oil, look for a cold-pressed product, as this method preserves more of the oil's nutrients and healthful antioxidants.
How Does Sesame Oil Work?
Sesame oil can be used topically or ingested (in moderate amounts). It can also be used as nose drops to help relieve chronic sinusitis, or as a mouthwash or throat gargle to help kill strep and other common cold bacteria.
When applied to your skin, sesame oil absorbs quickly and penetrates through your tissues, up to your bone marrow. Your liver also accepts the oil molecules as "friendly molecules," and does not remove them from your blood. Despite its popularity as an ingredient in many recipes, I do not advise consuming this oil in large amounts.
Even though it's a rancid-resistant oil, its high levels of omega-6 fats can make you cells fragile and prone to oxidation. Getting excessive omega-6 fats from this oil may also throw your omega-3 to 6 ratio out of whack.
Is Sesame Oil Safe?
Sesame oil is generally safe. It has been evaluated safe for use in cosmetics. In a final assessment published on the International Journal of Toxicology, sesame oil was deemed safe for use as a cosmetic ingredient.21 To ensure that topical application of this oil does not cause any unusual reactions, try applying it to a small area of your skin first.
Because it's a mild inflammatory and has high omega-6 levels, I would recommend consuming it in very small amounts. If you have an allergy to sesame seeds, DO NOT consume or use this oil, as it may lead to allergic reactions.22 I also advise pregnant women or nursing moms to use extreme caution when consuming sesame seeds and sesame oil, as it may have hormone-inducing effects, triggering uterine contractions that can lead to preterm labor or miscarriage.23
Side Effects of Sesame Oil
According to new research, sesame allergy is a very real concern in today's world. Common symptoms of sesame allergy can range from mild itching to anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal condition that can restrict breathing within seconds to hours of contact.24 Other reports have found that people with allergy to nuts like walnuts and peanuts may also experience allergic reactions to sesame seeds and oil.25