Is Sunflower Oil Healthy?

Sunflower oil is naturally high in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and is an excellent source of vitamin E. But did you know there are different types of sunflower oils? Depending on the variety of the sunflower plant and manufacturing process, each type of oil has different fatty acid profiles. It's important to understand the benefits and differences, so you can choose which oil is healthiest for you.

Sunflower oil is light in taste and appearance and excels in its vitamin E content. (Image: koosen/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Sunflower oil contains no cholesterol, is low in saturated fats, rich in oleic and linoleic acids and loaded with vitamin E, all of which makes it a healthy choice for most culinary applications.

Nutritional Content of Sunflower Oil

All sunflower oils consist primarily of fat, and all of the calorie content comes from fat. Your body needs some fat for energy, digestion and vitamin absorption. Dietary Guidelines recommends that your daily intake of fat should be less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake.

Some fats are healthier than others, and it's important to consume the right kinds of fat when it comes to edible oils. Three common grades of sunflower oil are available and each varies in its nutritional content of fatty acids.

All types of sunflower oil are an excellent source of vitamin E and provide a small amount of vitamin K. They do not contain cholesterol, protein or sodium.

High Oleic Sunflower Oil

This type of oil is from sunflowers bred to have a high concentration of oleic acid in their seeds. High oleic oils are considered healthy because of their higher content of omega-3 and lower content of omega-6 fatty acids as compared to other types of sunflower oils.

The breakdown of fat per tablespoon of high oleic sunflower oil, containing 70 percent or more of oleic acid, is:

  • Calories: 124 or 6 percent daily value
  • Total fat: 14 grams
  • Saturated fat: 1.4 grams
  • Monounsaturated fat 11.7 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fat: .5 grams
  • Omega-3 fatty acid: 26.9 milligrams
  • Omega-6 fatty acid: 505 milligrams

Mid Oleic Sunflower Oil

Mid oleic is the oil that's used for stir-frying and in salad dressings. It is often referred to as "NuSun" and is used for commercial food preparation purposes. The fat content of a tablespoon of mid oleic oil is:

  • Calories: 119 or 6 percent daily value
  • Total fat: 13.5 grams
  • Saturated fat: 1.2 grams
  • Monounsaturated fat 7.7 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 3.9 grams
  • Omega-3 fatty acid: 5 milligrams
  • Omega-6 fatty acid: 3,905 milligrams

Linoleic Sunflower Oil

Linoleic sunflower oil is composed of more polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but is lacking in healthy omega-3s. This may be a concern as linoleic sunflower oil could unbalance the crucial ratio of omega-3 to -6 in your diet. University Health News says you should consume at least twice the amount of omega-3s compared to other fats in your diet. If you use linoleic sunflower oil, be sure to add some fish or other omega-3 rich food to your diet.

The fat breakdown of 1 tablespoon of oil with approximately 65 percent linoleic acid, is:

  • Calories: 119 or 6 percent daily value
  • Total fat: 13.5 grams
  • Saturated fat: 1.4 grams
  • Monounsaturated fat 2.5 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 8.9 grams
  • Omega-3 fatty acid: 0
  • Omega-6 fatty acid: 8,870 milligrams

Linoleic Acid Benefits

Linoleic acid is an essential fat and the most common polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid. Omega-6 fatty acids are important to the formation of cell membranes, especially in your skin. Linoleic acid also produces prostaglandins, which are hormone-like lipids that help your blood clot and moderate muscle contraction.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, replacing saturated fat with linoleic acid may help to reduce total cholesterol, including LDL. In addition linoleic acid may help to improves insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.

Research has determined that linoleic acid converts into various compounds that alleviate inflammation. This may help decrease the risk of several chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that even a very high intake of linoleic acid does not decrease its ability as an anti-inflammatory.

Oleic Acid Benefits

Oleic acid is the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in your body. It is important for proper membrane fluidity, which affects hormone response, mineral transport and the health of your immune system. Oleic acid is a major source of energy for the cells in your body to carry out many metabolic processes.

Since oleic acid is known for promoting proper brain function, consuming sunflower oil may have a positive effect on your emotional state when it is used as a replacement for less-healthy fats.

Reports from two cohort studies found that oleic acid had a significant effect on mood and behavior. When dietary saturated fat was replaced with oleic acid, subjects had an increase in energy and a reduction in feelings of anger and hostility. These results were published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2013.

Health Claims for Oleic Acid

The FDA has approved that edible oils containing at least 70 percent oleic acid, such as in high oleic sunflower oil, qualify for being labeled with claims of cardiovascular health benefits when used to replace saturated fats.

Although studies remain somewhat inconclusive, the FDA examined 7 small clinical studies of 70 percent oleic-content oil and found most had an effect of lowering LDL and total cholesterol levels compared to diets high in saturated fat.

Benefits From Vitamin E

All types of sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E that may help protect you from disease. Vitamin E has antioxidant properties that neutralize damaging free radicals in your body. Free radicals are formed as a result of metabolic processes, such as digestion, or from the environment such as air pollution.

In addition to boosting your immune system to fight off invading viruses and bacteria, vitamin E is vital for keeping your blood vessels healthy by managing blood clotting by helping cells interact to carry out important bodily functions.

Phytosterols in Sunflower Oil

Linoleic sunflower oil contains 13.5 milligrams of phytosterols, a naturally occurring plant sterol found in plants. Because phytosterols are similar in structure to the cholesterol in your body, they both compete for absorption in the digestive system. This results in cholesterol absorption being blocked creating a potential reduction in blood cholesterol levels.

A 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported that the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends people with high cholesterol consume 2 grams of phytosterols every day to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Are Aldehydes Scary?

Studies have shown that sunflower oil may become carcinogenic when heated. Sunflower and other polyunsaturated oils generate high levels of damaging toxins when used in high-heat cooking. As oil begins to oxidize, the chemical composition changes and toxic compounds, called aldehydes, are released.

The longer sunflower oil is subjected to heat, the greater the release of high quantities of aldehydes. Even if inhaling the fumes from the heated oils, you are ingesting aldehydes.

A study, published the Journal of Hazardous Materials in 2017, compared aldehyde emissions in different oils and cooking methods and found deep frying, followed by pan frying and then by stir frying produced the most toxins. Sunflower oil proved to produce the highest emissions of total aldehydes, regardless of cooking method. Conclusions from the study suggested gentle cooking, such as stir frying, to limit exposure to aldehydes.

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