Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) seeds have long been clinically used in Korea to promote bone formation and prevent osteoporosis. However, the beneficial effect has not been scientifically evaluated. Thus, in the present study we investigated whether phytoestrogen rich safflower seeds reduce bone loss in ovariectomized rats. Female Sprague-Dawley rats were subjected to bilateral ovariectomy or sham surgery. One week after the operation, ovariectomized rats were either fed a diet containing defatted safflower seeds or injected with 17b-estradiol (E2) for 4 weeks. As expected, ovariectomy resulted in a dramatic reduction in trabecular bone mass of the proximal tibia, increase in deposition of marrow fat, and in uterine atrophy. E2 treatment almost completely prevented bone loss as well as marrow adiposity, as examined by scanning electron microscopy and histomorphometry. Safflower seeds partially prevented ovariectomy-induced bone loss and slightly reduced marrow adiposity. Safflower seeds, in contrast to E2, exerted very weak uterotrophic action. In an attempt to elucidate the underlying mechanisms, effect of polyphenolic compounds extracted from safflower seeds on proliferation of osteoblast-like cells was also assessed in vitro. The mixed polyphenolic compounds stimulated growth of ROS 17/2.8 osteoblast-like cells in a dose-dependent manner (5-100 mg/ml), as potently as E2 and genistein. The present data provide the first direct in vivo evidence that safflower seeds have a protecting effect on bone loss caused by estrogen deficiency, without substantial effect on the uterus. The beneficial effect of safflower seeds may be mediated, at least in part, by the stimulating effect of polyphenolic compounds on proliferation of osteoblasts.