A few people have sent me a new study claiming to demonstrate that half a tablespoon of safflower oil a day improves insulin sensitivity, increases HDL and decreases inflammation in diabetics (1). Let me explain why this study does not show what it claims.
It all comes down to a little thing called a control group, which is the basis for comparison that you use to determine if your intervention had an effect. This study didn't have one for the safflower group. What it had was two intervention groups, one given 6.4g conjugated linoleic acid (CLA; 50% c9t11 and 50% t10c12-CLA) per day, and one given 8g safflower oil. I have to guess that this study was originally designed to test the effects of the CLA, with the safflower oil group as the control group, and that the interpretation of the data changed after the results came in. Otherwise, I don't understand why they would conduct a study like this without a control group.
Anyway, they found that the safflower oil group did better than the CLA group over 16 weeks, showing a higher insulin sensitivity, higher HDL, lower HbA1c (a marker of average blood glucose levels) and lower CRP (a marker of inflammation). But they also found that the safflower group improved slightly compared to baseline, therefore they decided to attribute the difference to a beneficial effect of safflower oil. The problem is that without a control (placebo) group for comparison, there's no way to know if the improvement would have occurred regardless of treatment, due to the season changing, more regular check-ups at the doctor's office due to participating in a study, or countless other unforeseen factors. A control group is essential for the accurate interpretation of results, which is why drug studies always have placebo groups.
What we can say is that the safflower oil group fared better than the CLA group, because there was a difference between the two. However, what I think really happened is that the CLA supplement was harmful and the small dose of safflower oil had no effect. Why? Because the t10c12 isomer of CLA, which was half their pill, has already been shown by previous well-controlled studies to reduce insulin sensitivity, decrease HDL and increase inflammatory markers at a similar dose and for a similar duration (2, 3). The safflower oil group only looked good by comparison. We can add this study to the "research bloopers" file.
It's worth noting that naturally occurring CLA mixtures, similar to those found in pastured dairy and ruminant fat, have not been shown to cause metabolic problems such as those caused by isolated t10c12 CLA.