Is sunflower oil healthy?
A popular all-purpose oil, sunflower has enjoyed a “healthy” image thanks to its high poly-unsaturated and low saturated fat content, but is it really a healthy option? We asked registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens to explain
What is sunflower oil?
Sunflower oil is pressed from the seeds of the sunflower (helianthus annus), each flower producing as many as 2000 seeds. Typically grown in the warmer climes of France, Spain and Italy, the UK saw its first commercial sunflower oil producer in 2020.
Sunflower oil is pale yellow in colour and mild-tasting making it a versatile oil, used in a wide variety of cooking from frying and roasting to bakes and cakes. It’s also employed in food production being used in the manufacture of oil dressings as well as vegetable spreads and margarines.
More recent developments have brought about a sunflower oil high in a type of fat called oleic acid, this type of sunflower oil is considered more stable during cooking.
Nutritional profile of sunflower oil
One 1 level tbsp (11ml) provides:
- 99 Kcal / 407 kJ
- 11g Fat
- 1.3g Saturates
- 2.3g Mono-unsaturates
- 7.0g Poly-unsaturates
- 5.41mg Vitamin E
Sunflower oil is one of the best dietary sources of vitamin E and is often used in vegetable oil blends as well as spreadable fats to improve their vitamin E content.
Is sunflower oil a healthy choice?
One of the first considerations for any oil is how it was processed because this will influence how it performs during cooking and ultimately how healthy it is. Much of the sunflower oil on our supermarket shelves is refined, and processed using chemicals. As such they are likely to contain chemical residues and won’t retain their natural nutrients or enzymes, although they will benefit from a longer shelf life.
Sunflower oil is, of course, low in saturated fat, with high levels of poly-unsaturated fats (PUFAs) in the form of omega-6 fatty acids, such as linoleic acid. These omega-6 fatty acids are essential in our diet because the body cannot make them. We use them to maintain normal blood cholesterol levels, for our immune response as well as for growth and development.
Although sunflower oil originally laid claim to health benefits because of its poly-unsaturated content, an increasing knowledge of the benefits of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) has led us to re-think just how healthy oils, like sunflower oil, are. It’s true we need omega-6 fatty acids, but there are concerns about how much we currently eat and beliefs that consuming too much of this type of fat at the expense of others, may lead to some of the chronic inflammatory conditions we commonly see today, like heart disease, obesity and cancer.
Studies on animals have also suggested that consuming linoleic-rich sunflower oil throughout life may impact how well the animal ages, potentially increasing cholesterol as well as leading to DNA damage.
These findings and others may be linked to one of the major downsides of sunflower oil which is its ability to generate a greater number of damaging aldehydes than palm, rapeseed or soya oils, regardless of the cooking method used. This is especially relevant when the oil is repeatedly heated to temperatures of 180C such as in deep-fat frying. Sunflower oil is a popular choice for high temperature cooking because it has a relatively high smoke point, however, this smoke point doesn’t take account of the oil’s susceptibility to produce these damaging chemicals.
A growing understanding of these and other health factors has led to the development of new varieties of sunflower oil including one which is high in the MUFA, oleic acid, this improves the oil’s heart-friendly credentials and makes it more stable at higher temperatures. It’s important to remember that both linoleic and oleic acid are fat sources of energy and are used by the body to form cells, however, it is the way they respond to heat which makes them quite different.
What’s the verdict?
It’s clear that how healthy sunflower oil is depends on a number of factors including its fatty acid composition, how it was processed and stored and the use to which it is put.
When selecting a sunflower oil, look for one with a high oleic acid content, this means mono-unsaturated fats make up approximately 70% of the fatty acid composition. As a result, the oil will be more stable during cooking and supplies more of the heart-friendly type of unsaturated fats.
Using sunflower oil in small amounts for short, low temperature cooking and varying your oil consumption with other varieties like olive, avocado and rapeseed may provide a better balance to your diet. Never re-use sunflower oil - discard any residual oil immediately after use.
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This article was published on 8th December 2021.
Kerry Torrens is a Registered nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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