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Sunflower Oil – Health Benefits, Nutrition, Types and Use in Cooking

Sunflower, Helianthus annuus,is a native plant of Americas. Its seeds were brought to Europe in 16th century where it began to be used as a cooking oil. It was introduced in 1969 in India as an oilseed crop. Due to the various benefits of sunflower oil for humans, its production has increased over all these years. In 2017-18, Karnataka, Bihar and Orissa are three states producing most of the sunflower oil in India. Karnataka has share of 50% in total production, while Bihar and Orissa has 10% share each.

Types of Sunflower Oil

Sunflower seeds can be modified using modern plant breeding techniques to make different variants of sunflower. National Sunflower Association of USA defines 4 different variants of this oil. These are given below…

1. High Oleic Sunflower Oil – In this variant, the oleic acid content is 82%. These typically have high omega 3 as compared to omega 6 fatty acids. These help in improving brain health and have a bearing on moods and behaviour.

2. Mid Oleic Sunflower Oil – Also called popularly as NuSun Oil, it has oleic acid content up to 65% with linoleic accounting for another 26% of total fatty acid composition. This oil is most commonly used for stir-frying and in dressing the salads. 

3. High Linoleic Sunflower Oil – In this the linoleic acid is in greater proportion as compared to Oleic fatty acid content. It accounts for as much as 69% of total with Oleic taking the secondary place at 20% of total fatty acid composition.

This has more omega 6 fatty acid composition as compared to omega 3. This has proven useful in improving inflammation and reducing heart and Type 2 diabetes.

4. High Stearic and High Oleic Sunflower Oil – In this variant the stearic acid composition is increased significantly to constitute 18% of total whereas oleic acid still retains largest share of fatty acid content at 72%. High stearic sunflower oil is considered to be a good alternative to palm oil because palm oil increases bad cholesterol levels in the body which is not good for heart health whereas sunflower oil increases the good cholesterol levels and reduces bad cholesterol in body.

How is Sunflower Oil used in Cooking?

Sunflower oil is used in refined and unrefined manner. The unrefined sunflower oil has smoke point of 107°C whereas after refining, it goes up to 232°C.

In refined form, it is able to withstand high temperatures during cooking and, therefore, can be used for sautéing, deep frying, stir-frying and baking purposes. 

However, when oil is non-refined, it is not able suitable for deep frying due to a low smoking point. Therefore, it is used in dressing salads most of the time and not for cooking on high temperatures.

Potential Health Benefits of Sunflower oil

1/12. Good for Heart Health

Sunflower oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids. This makes this oil more suitable for heart health than the others because the development of bad cholesterol is checked. Phytosterols present in sunflower oil prevents cholesterol absorption by the body. Sunflower oil also contains lecithin that lowers cholesterol. This makes it good for heart.

2/12. Good for Skin

Presence of Vitamins E and A in good amounts in sunflower oil are considered to be good for skin. These vitamins act as anti-oxidants. The damaged skin cells and tissues are regenerated. These vitamins prevent premature ageing and wrinkles. The oil is non-comedogenic which means that it will not clog the pores of the skin.

At the same time, linoleic acid present in the oil works like a moisturiser for the skin which is helpful in treating dryness of the skin. It helps skin retain the moisture and protects the outer layer of the skin from germs and bacteria.

3/12. Source of energy

Sunflower oil also has high calorific value due to the presence of unsaturated fatty acids, it helps in balanced discharge of sugar glycogen into the bloodstream from the liver. This sugar provides energy to the body.

4/12. Good for Hair

Sunflower oil is also good for hair. When applied on hair, it helps add luster to the hair, prevent dryness and does not let them become frizzy. The presence of a variant of linoleic acid called GLA in sunflower oil prevents the loss of hair.

5/12. Good for Improving Immune System

The immune system of the body is the natural ability of the body to fight diseases by developing its own antibodies against the threat. At a cellular level, sunflower oil is believed to strengthen the cell membranes which prevents bacteria and viruses from entering the body. Another way in which sunflower oil helps in boosting immunity is by building and repairing tissues and enzymes in body allowing it to function in healthy manner.

6/12. Improves digestion

The biggest advantage of using sunflower oil in cooking is that this is light and is easy to digest. The food cooked with this oil can be easily assimilated by the body. 

A related aspect of digestion, ease of bowel movement and relief from constipation, is also important consideration and sunflower oil helps in this respect as well.

7/12. Anti-inflammatory

Sunflower oil is anti-inflammatory in nature, it is believed to be useful for people suffering from inflammatory symptom diseases such as arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Linoleic acid present in the oil activates the PPAR-alpha which reduced the severity of pain and inflammation associated with arthritis.

8/12. Prevents Asthma

Studies have suggested Vitamin E reduces broncho-constriction, which leads to asthma. Since sunflower oil is rich in Vitamin E, it is an inference that it might be helpful in preventing it. 

9/12. Prevents Cancer

Being a rich source of Vitamin A and carotenoids, it is able to negate the influence of free radicals. It is believed to be useful in preventing colon and uterine cancer.

10/12. Reduces Depression

Sunflower oil contains magnesium which plays a significant role in regulation neuronal calcium channel. It is believed that sunflower oil might prove to be useful in cases of depression and anxiety.

11/12. Weight Loss 

Adiponectin is the compound which is responsible for breaking down fatty acid. The sunflower oil increases the levels of this compound in women after their menopausal periods. Therefore, it leads burning of fat naturally and reduction in weight.

12/12. Good for Bone Health

Sunflower oil contains magnesium which is an important mineral for the body. This prevents osteoporosis, loss of bone or mineral density.

Side-effects and Precautions of Sun flower oil

Despite its many advantages, experts advice caution in consuming this oil due to likely side-effects for certain people. The side-effects are generally associated with greater use of the oil.

1. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to avoid use of sunflower oil since it is high in omega 6 fatty acids which may not be healthy when taken in large quantity.

2. Diabetic patients are advised against consumption of sunflower oil since it might aggravate their condition. It might increasing the fasting insulin levels due to high linoleic acid content and might also increase after-meal blood fats.

3. People who are allergic to certain plants such as ragweed, marigolds, daisies, etc. belonging to Asteraceae/ Compositae plant family might also be allergic to sunflower oil.

Composition of Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil essentially comprises fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated) and vitamins. The major proportion of fatty acids (more than 80%) is made up of unsaturated fatty acids which makes it a healthy oil for consumption.

It is common knowledge that oils having more unsaturated fatty acids than saturated ones are considered healthy for heart as these do not allow bad cholesterol levels (LDL) to increase in body. Therefore, cholesterol is not accumulated in the arteries.

A detailed break-up of standard sunflower oil is given below…

    Palmitic acid (saturated)5%
    Stearic acid (saturated)6%
    Oleic acid (monounsaturated omega-9)30%
    Linoleic acid (polyunsaturated omega-6)59%

As can be seen from the above table, the polyunsaturated fatty acid comprises about 60% of total fatty acids and the monounsaturated fatty acids is about 30% total fatty acids in sunflower oil. The concentration of these oils can be changed with by suitable interventions in plant breeding.

1. Vitamin E – Sunflower oil also has good proportion of Vitamin E. 

2. Folic acid is another compound present in this oil and which is needed for DNA synthesis.

3. Selenium present in the sunflower oil is able to provide about 45% of daily recommended intake. In the absence of this compound, there might be problems of thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism).

Extraction and Refining

Sunflower oil is extracted from sunflower either by mechanical pressing or by using chemical solvents. Mechanical pressing is also called expeller extraction method. In order to retain the nutritious composition of the oil in pure form, the expeller extraction is done in cold temperatures, which is called ‘cold pressing’ extraction.

The use of solvents, such as hexane, is used in chemical extraction method. After extraction, the oil is refined for raising it smoking point so that it can be used for high-temperature cooking. However, refining it takes away its some of its nutrients, colour, flavour, free fatty acids, phytosterols, polyphenols and phospholipids.

Also Read…

[1] Sunflower Seeds – Health Benefits

[2] Sunflower Oil Adulteration

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