Cooking oils are—or at the very least, should be—mainstays in any pantry. Whether you use them to cook, marinade, dress, or drizzle, a little goes a long way when it comes to adding flavor and body to your favorite foods (as well as giving your stir fry or scrambled eggs zero reason to stick to the skillet). To extend your healthy cooking oil rotation beyond the more neutrally-flavored EVOO and avocado oils, look to sesame oil: it's rich in health benefits, is super versatile, and brings majorly delicious flavor to the table.
To learn more about sesame oil benefits, the types of sesame oil you have to choose from, and the best ways to integrate each one into your dishes, we spoke to Jennifer Maeng, MS, RD, LD, CDN, CNSC, founder of Chelsea Nutrition.
- Jennifer Maeng, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, clinical dietitian and founder of Chelsea Nutrition
Sesame oil benefits
To begin, Maeng highlights that sesame oil is integral in numerous cultural cuisines worldwide, particularly calling out its ubiquity in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southern Indian, and Middle Eastern meals. Based on its savory, nutty flavor and impressive nutritional properties, it’s easy to see why it’s been revered around the world for centuries.
1. Sesame oil is good for your heart and cardiovascular system
To start, sesame oil is heart-healthy. “It’s composed of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, both of which have been found to lower the risk of developing heart disease,” Maeng begins.
Further, according to Maeng, the antioxidant properties of sesame oil also offer cardiac protection. As a 2017 review in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science explains, sesame oil “can decrease low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels while maintaining high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels,” thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis (a disease characterized by a buildup of plaque in the arteries).
2. Sesame oil helps to regulate blood sugar
“Studies have also shown that consumption of sesame oil slows the release of glucose into the blood, thus helping to keep blood sugar levels stable for people with type 2 diabetes,” Maeng says. One such study, published in 2019 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that light sesame oil played an important role in reducing the fasting blood glucose in participants with this condition. "Moreover, biomarkers of liver, cardiac, and renal functions improved significantly within 90 days of incorporating it into their diet," Maeng adds.
3. Sesame oil is anti-inflammatory
Chronic inflammation is a driving force behind countless health conditions, which makes sesame oil’s anti-inflammatory potential all the more attractive. For starters, Maeng mentions that sesame oil can improve your skin. “That’s because it contains both vitamin E and zinc, which are essential for skin health,” she says. These two micronutrients are also antioxidants, meaning they help to reduce free radical damage throughout the entire body. "Thanks to its anti-inflammatory potential, sesame oil has anti-cancer properties as well."
These benefits, impressive as they are, only scratch the surface of the full potential behind this nutritional powerhouse. “There are many other qualities of sesame oil that may elicit further health benefits when consumed alongside a healthy diet,” Maeng says. (A word to the wise: Don’t skip on sesame seeds or Middle Eastern sesame staples like tahini and halva either. Maeng says that while their macronutrients like protein and fat vary, they’ll all pack the same vitamin and mineral content.)
How to choose (and use) the right sesame oil
There are two commonly used types of sesame oil: toasted sesame oil and light sesame oil.
Toasted sesame oil
Also known as dark sesame oil, toasted sesame oil is made—you guessed it—from toasted sesame seeds. “The color ranges from golden brown to dark brown, and it’s most commonly used for seasoning—rather than cooking—due to its overpowering nutty taste,” she says.
Due to its powerful flavor profile, toasted sesame oil is the better option to top off your meals. “I recommend using toasted sesame oil in dressings and marinades, or to drizzle on a finished dish for extra nutty aroma,” Maeng says.
Light sesame oil
Next, light sesame oil (which is also referred to as white or non-toasted sesame oil) is lighter in color than the former variety, hence its name. Maeng takes care to call out that “light” doesn’t refer to the caloric or nutrient content of the oil. “Both oils have the same nutritional value,” she says.
Since the taste of light sesame oil is significantly more mild than its counterpart, Maeng says it’s more often used for cooking. “The next time you sauté your veggies, try using this sesame oil with garlic, ginger, and coconut aminos to create a flavorful stir fry,” Maeng recommends.
The bottom line
TL; DR? Sesame oil is a cherished culinary staple across various cultures that can boost your nutrient intake and please your palate alike. As a final note, Maeng says that it’ll take more than a teensy drizzle here and a sauté there to fully reap its rewards. “To optimize the benefits of sesame oil, you should consume it regularly alongside a healthy diet [and lifestyle],” she reminds us.
So before you mix up a marinade or bust out your wok, take a walk to your closest grocery store to add this pantry powerhouse *and* other nutrient-rich foods to your cart.
Put that sesame oil to use in this delicious scallion pancake recipe:
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