Is Sesame Oil Good For You? Pros, Cons & How It Compares To Other Cooking Oils
If you're an avid cook, you likely have a slew of oils in your pantry. Olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil are all essential ingredients in the kitchen—but have you ever cooked with sesame oil?
Beyond having a pleasant nutty flavor, this oil is also hailed for its effect on the hair and skin. Here's what to know about the benefits of sesame oil and whether it deserves a spot in your rotation.
What is sesame oil?
Sesame oil is a type of vegetable oil that's made from sesame seeds. It's most popular in South India, the Middle East, and East Asian countries like Korea, Japan, and China, though you can find it here in the U.S. too.
"Sesame oil has a nutty, earthy taste to it that is very potent and aromatic, so it's used in smaller portions to cook with," says Ananta Ripa Ajmera, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and founder and CEO of The Ancient Way. She adds that unrefined sesame oil—made by pressing roasted sesame seeds to extract their oil without refining—is also commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine.
When used for cooking, sesame oil has a similar smoke point to olive oil, between 350 degrees to 410 degrees Fahrenheit. Smoke point is important because it's when the healthy fats in sesame oil break down and oxidize. A higher smoke point helps reduce the margin of error when cooking and protects the nutritional value of the oil.
The nutritional value of sesame oil.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 tablespoon (13.6g) of sesame oil contains1:
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 13.6 grams
- Choline: 0.027 milligrams
- Vitamin E: 0.19 milligrams
- Vitamin K: 1.85 micrograms
- Saturated fats: 1.93 grams
- Monounsaturated fatty acids: 5.4 grams
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids: 5.67 grams
Foods high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), like sesame oil, are recommended for their health benefits2 like reducing cardiovascular disease risk and helping to manage body weight.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are another type of dietary fat found in sesame oil. They can be further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Sesame oil contains mostly omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial for heart health and blood sugar regulation when paired with omega-3s. It's all about a healthy balance of both types of fats.
Different types of sesame oil.
Depending on how sesame oil is prepared, its nutrient composition and even smoke point degree may change. Some of the most commonly used forms of sesame oil include:
- Toasted sesame oil: Made from toasted sesame seeds, this sesame oil has a stronger, nuttier taste due to the toasting of seeds before being pressed into oil. Toasted sesame oil will also have a lower smoke point than other forms and is often used for drizzling on dishes.
- Cold-pressed sesame oil: The oil is extracted from the sesame seeds at room temperature, without using heat or preservatives. "Toasted and cold-pressed sesame oils are unrefined and therefore considered beneficial in Ayurveda because they contain the maximum nutrition value," says Ajmera.
- Refined sesame oil: Refined sesame oil is made using intense pressure and friction. This method gives refined sesame oil a longer shelf life, higher smoke point (closer to 410 degrees Fahrenheit), and a milder flavor. "Refined sesame oil is lighter, milder, and less scented but not as potent in terms of its therapeutic value as the unrefined varieties," adds Ajmera.
- Vegetable blends: This is sesame seed oil that has other vegetable oils added to it, such as canola oil. Blended sesame oils can be made from toasted sesame oil or refined oils, and they're a bit of a mixed bag healthwise. Manufacturers usually make vegetable blends to save on production costs, and they tend to be less nutritious.
The health benefits of sesame oil:
It's nourishing for your hair.
Sesame oil has been studied for its antibacterial and antifungal properties3 and can be used as an anti-dandruff agent. When applied to strands, it forms a protective coat around the hair, prevents UV damage, strengthens the roots, and moistens the follicle to prevent dryness.
"Sesame oil is a common base for hair oils," says Ajmera. "These hair oils usually contain additional herbs like Brahmi, Jatamansi, Bhringraj, and/or Amla. When blended together it enhances the potency, strengthening your hair." Learn more about how to treat your hair with oil here.
It can improve skin evenness and tone.
Certain vitamins and fats in sesame oil have been found to protect and improve skin tone. For example, vitamin E is an antioxidant4 that can help prevent UV-induced free radical damage to the skin as well as prevent inflammation.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)5 also act to help maintain the skin's natural oil barrier, preventing and reducing dry, flaky skin. It's these properties that Ajmera says make sesame oil a popular skin treatment in Ayurveda—often incorporated into a nourishing massage ritual called Abhyanga.
It can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health.
"Sesame oil has anti-inflammatory properties, which can make it a great way to help lower cholesterol," says Amy Shah, M.D., a double board-certified integrative medicine doctor.
The lignans, tocopherols, phytosterols, natural antioxidants, and bioactive compounds in sesame can contribute to protecting heart health6 and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially when used in place of saturated fats.
A separate study found that when patients were given a blend of sesame and rice bran oil with the antihypertensive drug nifedipine, they significantly reduced total cholesterol7, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides, and non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels.
An important point, however, is while sesame oil (in addition to other vegetable oils) can improve and protect heart health, it's not a magic bullet. Diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle habits are still the cornerstones of cardiac health, but sesame oil can add protective properties thanks to the vitamins and compounds found in it.
It's an Ayurvedic staple for oral health and stress relief.
"In Ayurveda, sesame oil is used for oil pulling," says Ajmera. Oil pulling involves swishing oil around your mouth for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
It is believed to strengthen your voice, prevent wrinkles, reduce gum inflammation, decrease nausea, prevent and counteract tooth sensitivity, stimulate your taste buds, and prevent dryness of throat and lips (including cracked lips), says Ajmera. There is some preliminary modern science8 to support these benefits of the ancient practice.
"Sesame oil is also used for nasal oiling, which is beneficial to reduce headaches, and strengthen the five senses, your brain, and nervous system," Ajmera adds. Because the nose can be seen as the entrance to the brain and body, she says nasal oiling brings energy through the body, resulting in clarity and reduced stress levels.
It has anticancer properties.
"In addition to it lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, sesame oil has been found to help prevent chronic diseases like cancer," says Shah. Researchers found that sesamin, a lignan derived from sesame seeds, can influence pathways responsible for innate immunity9 and prevent certain tumor cells from growing and multiplying.
It has also been studied for its beneficial effects on a number of different types of cancer, including breast, lung, prostate, and colon cancers10.
The downsides of sesame oil:
Allergies and sensitivities.
Since sesame oil stems from sesame seeds, those with allergies need to be particularly careful.
"Some individuals may use cholesterol, diabetes, and/or certain blood sugar medications that have to watch their sesame oil consumption because of the oil's blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering capabilities," adds Shah.
May contain traces of aflatoxins.
Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by specific fungi that live on some crops. Exposure to aflatoxins over time may increase the risk of certain cancers, such as liver cancer.
There have been trace amounts of aflatoxins found on sesame seeds. However, the majority of sample studies were well below European regulation limits, meaning that exposure to aflatoxins through consuming sesame seeds (and thus, sesame oil) did not pose an increased risk of cancer exposure.
So, is sesame oil healthy?
Yes, sesame oil can be part of a healthy diet. From imparting your cooking with a delicious nutty flavor to nourishing your skin, hair, and even your mouth, sesame oil can play many roles in your well-being routine.
For optimal health benefits, its best to choose a cold-pressed or toasted sesame oil. And like with any source of fat, you're better off consuming it alongside whole food sources like nuts and seeds. It's best enjoyed in moderation, so be sure to pair it with other healthy cooking oils like avocado oil and olive oil.
Ajmera does note that in Ayurvedic tradition, sesame oil is better for some doshas than others. (Here's a summary of the three doshas if you're unfamiliar.) "Sesame oil in food as a cooking oil is considered too heating for those of Pitta dosha constitution, which is made up of the fire and water elements in Ayurveda," says Ajmera. "This means cooking with sesame oil can cause those who already struggle with heat-related issues like hyperacidity or reflux to experience sensitivities."
Sesame oils vs. other oils.
Here's how sesame oil stacks up against other commonly used oils you may have on hand:
Sesame oil vs. olive oil
Shah says nutritionally, these two stack up pretty evenly, and both have solid amounts of healthy fats. The biggest difference is the taste, as sesame oil is nutty while olive oil may be more bitter (particularly extra-virgin).
Olive oil can also have a slightly higher smoke point. "Unrefined sesame oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, while high-quality extra-virgin olive oil can withstand heat up to 405 degrees Fahrenheit before beginning to smoke," she says. This is the temperature that the oil starts to burn and create pro-inflammatory free radicals11. "Of the two, extra-virgin olive oil stands up better to heat," says Shah.
Sesame oil vs. canola oil
Sesame oil is the healthier pick here. Canola oil will have a more neutral taste than sesame oil, but it tends to be more highly refined. Both contain a good amount of PUFAs and MUFAs, but sesame oil contains a more significant amount of antioxidant phytochemicals12 that can protect against free radical damage.
Sesame oil vs. coconut oil
Like coconut oil, the fat content of sesame oil makes it keto-friendly. Coconut oil has more saturated fat13 while sesame oil contains more PUFAs and MUFAs, as well as higher amounts of vitamins E and K. They're nutritionally pretty different, but both can have a place in a healthy diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is sesame oil healthy for diabetics?
Yes. Studies have shown that using sesame oil for cooking can lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol in hypertensive, diabetic-hypertensive, and Type 2 diabetes patients.
Is sesame oil healthy for frying?
Because of its MUFA and PUFA content, sesame oil can help lower the risk of heart disease compared to other frying agents like butter.
However, frying is not the healthiest way to eat sesame oil. You're better off using it in moderation to add flavor to your dishes. Since sesame oil (especially unrefined and cold-pressed) tends to be more expensive, frying also isn't the most economical way to use the ingredient.
Is sesame oil inflammatory?
No. Sesame oil has antioxidants which makes it anti-inflammatory. "This is why it's also used to help reduce joint inflammation, toothaches, scrapes, and general wound healing in Ayurveda," says Ajmera.
Sesame oil is one of the healthiest oils to use, not only in the kitchen but for your hair and skin, too. Unless you're on certain medications, you can use sesame oil in your cooking, your personal care routine, as well as for holistic treatments like oil pulling. Here are seven other healthy oils to cook with, as well as the ones to skip.
Colleen Travers is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition, diet, fitness, and wellness trends for various publications and brands. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, SHAPE, Fit Pregnancy, Food Network, and more. She lives on Long Island with her two kids, two rescue pets, and husband.