India’s search for a healthy edible oil has received a boost with a team of scientists at the Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research (IIOR), Hyderabad, developing new varieties of safflower that can yield oil with beneficial properties comparable to that of olive oil.

The three new safflower cultivars, currently being tested by IIOR scientists, have oleic content as high as 75 per cent, which is similar to the levels in olive oil.

Safflower oil brands available in India have only 20 to 25 per cent oleic fatty acid and this low oleic content makes them less suitable for deep frying.

Besides, the new varieties — developed by crossing a high-oleic safflower variety accessed from the US and a safflower crop traditionally grown in India called A1 — have seed and oil yields of up to 15 and 27 per cent, respectively.

The IIOR scientists, led by K Anjani, tested the new varieties in 10 different locations in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh under both rain-fed and irrigated conditions in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. The scientists reported their work in the online version of Industrial Crops and Products journal.

The institute, a constituent of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, has developed the high-yielding high-oleic varieties for FMCG major Marico Limited, which funded the work.

Wide application

High oleic content safflower oil is used in many industries, including cosmetics, paint, detergent and pharma. “What is commendable is that they have been able to achieve this non-transgenic route,” said an IIOR scientist, who did not want to be quoted. “Scientists in the US have been able to increase oleic content in safflower through genetic modification, but that may not be a preferred mode as India is yet to approve any GM food crop,” the scientist said.

The demand for high-oleic edible oils has been rising as Indian consumers are becoming more and more health conscious. For instance, India imported around 8.5 lakh tonnes of high-oleic oils — primarily olive oil — between April 2014 and May 2016.

“As safflower oilseeds command a lower price in the market, farmers have of late been cultivating other competing crops, such as gram,” said Vrijendra Singh, a safflower breeder with the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, in Phaltan, Maharashtra.

Having new safflower varieties with higher oleic content canhelp farmers get a better price and thus increase the acreage under this oil crop, he said.