Sunflower Oil: Health Benefits and Caveats

People often comment to me about the high price of the Mediterranean Diet.  What are the options for eating healthfully on a budget?  This has gotten  me thinking about less expensive options for eating healthfully.  Here’s what I found out.

Health Benefits of Sunflower Oil

Sunflowers Photo by Veronica Hackethal

Photo by Veronica Hackethal

Sunflowers are native to North America, but were first grown for industrial use in nineteenth century Russia.  Today, Russia and Ukraine are still the largest producers of sunflower oil.

Sunflower oil has become more popular in the US since the recognition that trans-fats should be avoided.  Sunflower oil is very low in saturated and trans-fats.  In the 1990s, many potato chip manufacturers (attempting to rectify their images by offering seemingly healthier food options– like Lays and Kettle Chips), started using sunflower oil to decrease the amount of trans-fats in their products.

Sunflower oil is a mixture of monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids.  It is also high in the antioxidant Vitamin E.  Traditionally, sunflower oil has been used to treat constipation, arthritis, and skin disorders like psoriasis.  There is some evidence that sunflower oil may be helpful in lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Sunflower Oil Caveats

Hain olive oil, jennifer

Sunflower Oil
Photo by Jennifer Pahls

Sunflower oil is higher in omega-6 fatty acids than many other vegetable oils.  Some studies have shown that diets in which omega-6 fatty acids predominate over omega-3 fatty acids (the type found in fish), might increase the risk for some cancers, particuarly breast and prostate cancer.

People with diabetes might also need to be careful about diets high in sunflower oil.  Some studies have linked sunflower oil to increased levels of insulin, blood sugar, and amounts of fats released into the blood after eating.  This may have the potential for increasing the risk 0f atherosclerosis, particularly among diabetics.

People with allergies to plants in the ragwood family could experience crossover allergic reactions when eating sunflower oil.

Cooking with Sunflower Oil

Sunflowers Photo by Veronica Hackethal

Photo by Veronica Hackethal

The jury is still out on the benefits and drawbacks of sunflower oil.  The take home message seems to be that sunflower oil in moderate amounts could be part of a heart-healthy diet.

The nutrient value of sunflower oil varies based on its level of refining.  Unrefined sunflower oil retains more nutritional benefits than refined oil.  Yet unrefined oil tends to break down at lower temperatures than refined sunflower oil.  Most US super markets carry refined sunflower oil.  It still has low levels of saturated fat compared to many other types of oils.

Sunflower oil is ideal for cooking because of its high smoke point.  This means that sunflower oil holds onto its nutritional content at higher temperatures.  Above its smoke point, sunflower oil starts to break down into free fatty acids. Refined sunflower oil has a higher smoke point than unrefined sunflower oil.

One strategy for cutting down food costs could be to reserve that flavorful yet expensive extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salad, bread, and other uncooked foods.  For cooking, using lower cost oils, like sunflower or canola (more on this in future posts), could help cut food costs.  For occasional frying, sunflower oil could be an ideal option.

Sunflowers Photo by Veronica Hackethal

Photo by Veronica Hackethal

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