Sesame seed oil has been grown by humans for over 4,000 years, and evidence shows it was widely used by both ancient Babylonians and Assyrians. Most Americans are familiar with the sesame seeds commonly used as toppings on bread products, but sesame seeds offer much more. If cooking for health, or variety is something that intrigues you, its worth getting to know a little about the benefits of sesame seed oil.
The sesame plant is an annual plant that’s native to sub-Saharan Africa, but now grown around the world. The plant can grow up to 6-feet tall, and produces flowers that range in color from white to pale purple. Seeds mature in pods, which burst open when the pod is ripe, spilling the seeds out onto the ground. Sesame seed plants are divided into “shattering” and “non-shattering” varieties, which differ by whether the seed pods break open on their own, or burst open when touched. For both flavor and as an oil source, seeds from the “shattering” varieties are favored. Unfortunately, because sesame seed pods are so delicate, they must be gathered by hand, so pound-for-pound, they are quite expensive. For that reason alone, very little sesame seed oil production occurs in the United States.
The oil is removed from sesame seeds by either cold-pressing or roasting. These two methods yield oils with very different properties, so consumers get three main choices. Korean and Chinese chefs prefer oils from heavily roasted sesame seeds, which is dark and flavorful. Indian sesame seed oil (also known as til oil or gingelly oil) is golden yellow, and not as full-bodied. Cold-pressed varieties, which are made from raw seeds, is pale yellow with very little flavor.
The fat content of sesame seed oil is as follows: 15% saturated fat, 42% monounsaturated fat, and 43% polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat in sesame oil is mainly oleic acid. Linoleic acid, which some consider one of nature’s best natural metabolism boosters, is the primary polyunsaturated fat. Like other plant oils, sesame seeds contain no cholesterol. In fact, scientists suspect ingredients in sesame seed oil may actually help lower cholesterol levels. Sesame oil is also suitable for low temperature frying, and used for stir-frying in Asian cooking.
Unlike most oils that contain such large amounts of polyunsaturated fat, the shelf life of sesame oil is quite good, and it does not need to be refrigerated during storage. It’s suspected that the compounds sesamin and sesamolin, two powerful natural antioxidants, called lignans, which are found in sesame seed oil, are responsible. Those same natural protective compounds are the reason sesame oil has a much higher smoke point (410°F) than other similar oils. There has also been a great deal of interest in sesamin for weight loss.
Sesame seed oil offers several unique benefits to the health conscious chef. It’s unique, slightly nutty flavor is a signature of Asian and Indian foods. Powerful antioxidants offer up the possibility of unique health benefits, as well. In addition to their oil, sesame seeds are a rich source of copper, manganese, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and iron, and can be ground into a paste to make tahini, one of many healthy snacks for weight loss. So the next time you’re looking for something new to try in the kitchen, consider sesame seeds, or their oil, as a viable option.
Published September 2011. Reviewed December 2011.
- “Sesamin and Sesamolin: Nature’s Therapeutic Lignans” Current Enzyme Inhibition. 2005, (1), 11-20.