Sunflower Oil: When it’s Healthy and When it’s Not

by John Moody healthy fatsComments: 26

sunflower oilAs a kid, I remember Summer, baseball, and sunflower seeds. Kids throughout my neighborhood enjoyed munching on this healthy treat during baseball games both in the dugout and in the stands. While most adults don’t eat sunflower seeds like their kids, many do consume sunflower oil even if they aren’t aware of it.

In recent years, sunflower oil has become a very popular fat to use in natural and/or organic snacks and chips. It is also popular as a cooking oil. This trend is in response to growing consumer awareness of the dangers of other polyunsaturated oils such as soy, corn, and canola which are also usually of GMO origin.

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Since the oil comes from the beloved seeds, it seems logical that sunflower oil is a healthy fat to choose for the kitchen. Let’s dig in and see if this conclusion makes sense.

Sunflower Oil Uses

Most people are familiar with the source of sunflower seeds – the beautiful and stately sunflower. These lovely, large, and very diverse plants are grown across the country as parts of gardens and landscaping for their beauty, pollinator attraction, and other benefits.

Sunflowers are an excellent plant to help the birds, bees, and other wildlife in and around your property (1).

Speaking of seeds, sunflower plants are prolific seed producers. A single plant may produce close to 1,000 seeds! While most people are familiar with eating sunflower seeds, many do not realize soaking and drying seeds prior to eating makes them even more digestible and nutritious.

Another popular use of sunflower seeds is for animal feed. They make a quality replacement for lots of processed or genetically modified ingredients.

Tip: If you grow them for animal feed, you may need to take measures to protect the plants from the birds, squirrels, and other creatures who also love to snack on this nutritious seed!

In recent years, sunflower seed oil is commonly used in food manufacturing.  If you check ingredients on the chip aisle of the healthfood store, many list sunflower oil as a primary ingredient.

Straights facts on Sunflower Oil Nutrition

The general nutrition data on sunflower oil gives the following breakdown of the fatty acid profile.

  • Saturated fat (as Palmitic and Stearic acid): 11%
  • Monounsaturated or omega-9 fat (as Oleic acid): 30%
  • Polyunsaturated fat or omega-6 PUFAs (as linoleic acid): 59%

Beyond the fatty acid profile, there isn’t much else to say about sunflower oil save that it is high in vitamin E and lecithin, which isn’t chemically extracted like soya lecithin. This is only true if it is cold pressed and unrefined, however! Refined versions processed with heat are low nutrients oils.

Sunflower Oil High in Omega-6

As you can see, this golden oil is very high in omega-6 PUFAs clocking in at about 60%. This amount is not as high as other popular oils at the healthfood store such as:

Nonetheless, it is still high enough to be a concern. Note that rice bran oil, used by Chipotle for cooking, is significantly lower in PUFAs at 38%. The peanut oil used by Chick-fil-A and Five Guys Burgers has a PUFA content of 32%. However, Chipotle uses sunflower oil to fry its chips and Chick-fil-A/Five Guys use peanut oil to make french fries. So, you’re still getting plenty of vegetable oils if you eat at either of these restaurants. What’s more, the sunflower seed oil and peanut oil used in these chains is highly refined, so you’re consuming rancid vegetable oils too.

Sunflower Seed Oil Contains No Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Another concern is that sunflower oil contains no beneficial, inflammation reducing omega-3 fats like those found in walnut oil or flax seed oil. This is a problem if someone consumes sunflower oil regularly, as it will unbalance the crucial ratio of omega-6 / omega-3 fats in the diet. If we were exposed to only miniscule amounts of this oil, it wouldn’t be a concern.

The worry is that sunflower oil is everywhere in the food supply most especially if you eat organic! Thus, if you cook with it, you’re compounding the problem of excessive exposure.

But, this isn’t necessarily a problem if you are a savvy consumer. Read on for more details!

Sunflower Oil in the Modern Diet

Sunflower oil is exceptionally common in most Americans’ diets. Its clean, mild taste and high smoke point (450 F/ 232 C degrees), along with ease of cultivation make it a favorite for the processed foods industry. The high smokepoint doesn’t mean it is appropriate for frying, however! It most likely indicates that it is refined instead of cold pressed, which says “avoid” in flashing neon colors.

If you’ve ever looked at the back of many foods in the chip aisle, the label often reads “made with canola, sunflower, or safflower oil.” Translation: Whatever oil is cheapest and most convenient at the time is what is used! Crackers, chips, cookies, and many other foods may contain it. Fast food and prepackaged foods depend on it, including the organic food industry.

*Buying organic is no protection from exposure to rancid, health robbing oils.

The Problem with Frying with Oil from Sunflower Seeds

Even worse, when used for frying and a few other applications, sunflower and other oils are often heated REPEATEDLY. The European Union, after seeing studies that showed the dangerous chemical changes these repeated cooking cycles had on the oils, now prohibit the reuse of such oils after they reach certain levels of these dangerous compounds (2).

But, if you really love the mild taste of sunflower oil, you will be happy to learn that not all sunflower oils are the same.

Different Types of Sunflower Oil

Sunflower seeds are interesting, because various types have quite different fatty acid profiles. Since, the plants are easy to breed, this also permits the fatty acid profile of the seeds to be altered via hybridization. This process of selective breeding affects the end products made from them too, most especially the oil pressed or chemically extracted from the sunflower seeds.

Consumers now have a number of sunflower oils to choose from including:

  • Low oleic sunflower oil – around 30% oleic acid (monounsaturated), around 60% linoleic (omega-6 PUFA)
  • Mid-oleic sunflower oil – at least 69% oleic acid (monounsaturated), 26% linoleic (omega-6 PUFA)
  • High oleic sunflower oil – at least 82% oleic acid (monounsaturated), 9% linoleic (omega-6 PUFA)
  • High stearic sunflower oil – around 72% oleic (monounsaturated), 18% stearic (saturated).  This oil is so stable, it doesn’t require any hydrogenation, which creates trans-fats.

Mid-oleic is currently the standard sunflower oil in North America, and what you are most likely to be consuming at restaurants or in processed and packaged foods. Unfortunately, it is still unacceptably high in omega-6 PUFAs at around 26%. On the positive side, it does contain a large amount of monounsaturated fat, a definite improvement over low oleic varieties (3).

What to Do about Sunflower Oil

Educated consumers, the savviest type of shopper, wins when it comes to sunflower seed oil. They know to avoid processed versions of the oil which are hexane extracted. Some are also hydrogenated presenting the health risks from transfats. Avoid these always!

Warning: The labels of processed foods like chips and cookies that are made using sunflower oil do not differentiate between the type of sunflower oil used. In other words, you won’t know how it was processed, extracted, hydrogenated, handled, and the like. Hence, it is best to avoid processed foods even if organic that contain sunflower oil.

Another important note:  As mentioned above, cold pressed, unrefined sunflower oil has a much lower smokepoint than refined. The price of getting that higher smokepoint is basically destruction of the oil into a rancid fatty acid fest!  Here’s a brief description of what you’re getting with refined sunflower oil:

Refining sunflower oil through solvent extraction, de-gumming, neutralization, and bleaching can make it more stable and suitable for high-temperature cooking; but, will also remove some of the oil’s nutrients; flavor; color (resulting in a pale-yellow); free fatty acids; phospholipids; polyphenols; and, phytosterols. Unrefined sunflower oil is less heat-stable (and therefore well-suited to dishes that are either raw or cooked at low temperatures); but, will retain more of its original nutrient content, flavor, and color (light-amber).  (4)

This processed oil is certainly appropriate for industrial purposes, but not for human consumption! An interesting fact to consider is that sunflower oil can be mixed with diesel fuel and used to power diesel engines if outdoor temperatures are warm enough!

Bottom Line

Even if you don’t heat refined sunflower oil in your home after you buy it, the likelihood is that it has already been heated to temperatures that denature it prior to your purchase at the store. Processed sunflower oil also may very possibly contain trace amounts of carcinogenic solvents from this processing. Shockingly, even after the chemical extraction of sunflower oil from the seeds, the oil may be refined further. This removes still more nutrients resulting in a low nutrient fat that has no place in the diet.

Discerning the quality of a sunflower oil brand can be tricky, though. Take the bottle in the picture above, for example. It says all the right things at first glance.

  • Organic
  • Expeller Pressed (i.e., no chemical solvents used)
  • NonGMO verified
  • High Oleic (says this on the back label – means it is low in omega-6 PUFAs)

Would it be a good idea to buy this product? Probably not because it says refined [for] high heat at the bottom of the bottle. In other words, manufacturers heat treated or refined the oil prior to bottling. This process partially or completely destroys nutrients like Vitamin E and sunflower lecithin. Free radical damage is also likely.

Read labels carefully!

Best to avoid any foods cooked with refined sunflower oil and stick with chips cooked in coconut oil or avocado oil chips.

High Oleic Sunflower Oil: The Clear Winner

If you choose to use or consume this oil in your home, it is best to use a cold pressed, high oleic, unrefined, organic sunflower oil (this brand is excellent). Used traditionally in salad dressing as in Eastern European cuisine is a great way to enjoy it.

Remember that healthy fats naturally liquid at room temperature require careful handling and storage. They are prone to rancidity even if high oleic. Carefully choosing a good brand as mentioned above is important. Also, use it quickly or be sure to refrigerate. In moderation, these oils make a wonderful addition to your kitchen and cuisine.

Sunflower Oil in Homemade Formula

One other important note. While high oleic sunflower oil is great to use for home cooking, it is inappropriate as an ingredient in homemade baby formula. The recipe for baby formula includes sunflower oil that is cold pressed, unrefined, organic, and LOW oleic (this brand is recommended). This ensures that the appropriate level of essential omega-6 fats is in the formula.

John Moody is the director of Steader, author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses. He has two books forthcoming.

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