Sunflower oil is a rising star in the plant-based world. Yet, most people aren’t aware that sunflower oil is commonly used in processed health foods. So, how is something purportedly healthy popping up in processed foods?

Since this oil may be hiding as a third or fourth ingredient in your favorite granola bar, it’s probably a good idea to learn a bit more about this elusive ingredient.

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Specifically, it’s important to note that depending on the variety — there are four different types of sunflower oil — you may be boosting your health or damaging it. Due to the fatty acid design of sunflower oil, there are a handful of benefits and a handful of negative ramifications.

Let’s take a deep dive and learn how to consume sunflower oil responsibly!

What is Sunflower Oil?

Just as olive oil comes from olives, coconut oil comes from coconut, and avocado oil comes from avocados, so does sunflower oil comes from sunflower seeds. Specifically, sunflower oil is sourced from “pressing the seeds of the Helianthus annuus plant.”

You can find sunflower oil in “both refined (neutral-tasting) and cold-pressed (buttery, nutty) forms.” Of course, if you’ve done the research, then you’re probably aware that the term refined is generally linked to food items that are processed and therefore defined as unhealthy. This holds true for sunflower oil … for the most part.

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It’s important to make sure you source your sunflower oil smartly, in particular going with a cold-pressed variety. With that said, “cold-pressed unrefined sunflower oil is harder to find in the US” due to the fact that it has a much lower smoke point, while refined sunflower oil has a powerfully high smoke point of 440 to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold-pressed sunflower oil shouldn’t be used for high heat applications — such as sauteing and frying  — but instead used in dressings, making it a less versatile oil.

When it comes to the composition of sunflower oil, it gets a bit complicated given that there are four types of sunflower oil. All sunflower oil contains “unsaturated fats that may benefit heart health,” yet, on the other hand, “any potential benefits of sunflower oil depend on the type and nutrient composition.” Plus, overconsumption of certain sunflower oils “may [actually] harm your health.”

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So, let’s take a look at the different types of sunflower oil!

Types of Sunflower Oil

When you read that a product contains sunflower oil, it’s important to differentiate which type. These four varieties of sunflower oil have different compositions of linoleic or oleic acid. They are “high linoleic (68% linoleic acid), mid-oleic (NuSun, 65% oleic acid), high oleic (82% oleic acid), and high stearic/high oleic (Nutrisun, 72% oleic acid, 18% stearic acid).”

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As you can see, the make of sunflower oil is defined by its fatty acid composition, but it’s also this composition that defines whether it’s healthy or not.

Linoleic acid is a “polyunsaturated fatty acid that has two double bonds in its carbon chain” and is most commonly known as omega 6 fatty acid. Oleic acid is a “monounsaturated fatty acid with one double bond” and is most commonly known as omega 9 fatty acid. Both linoleic and oleic acids are “sources of energy for the body.”

When it comes down to healthy versus … well … not so healthy, it’s generally believed that too much polyunsaturated fat (such as omega 6) is not so healthy, while higher levels of monounsaturated fat (such as omega 9) are recognized as good for you.

Yet, the real potential dangers of consuming the wrong type of sunflower oil come down to two factors: the amount of omega-6 fatty acids and the way the oil reacts when introduced to heat.

Potential Dangers of Sunflower Oil

Which types of sunflower oil should we be wary of?

Steer clear of the varieties that “contain more linoleic acid, also known as omega-6.” In particular, you want to avoid “mid-oleic … sunflower oil, one of the most commonly used varieties in the United States, [which is comprised of] 15 [to] 35 [percent] linoleic acid.”

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Sunflower oils that contain higher levels of linoleic acid have higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Yes, omega fatty acids are essential, but too much of a good thing — omega-6 fatty acids, in particular, — have been shown to cause “inflammation in the body and related health issues.”

So, what about how the oil reacts to heat? Turns out that when sunflower oil is introduced to heat repeatedly — specifically, temps over 180 degrees Fahrenheit — it releases “potentially toxic compounds,” specifically aldehydes, “toxic compounds that … contribute to conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer’s.” This means that any food item cooked at high heat in sunflower oil may be introduced to these unhealthy compounds.

With that said, out of all the sunflower oils, “high oleic … is likely the most stable variety when used in high heat frying and cooking.”

Health Benefits of Sunflower Oil

It’s not all bad news though! In order to reap health benefits, it’s important to use “high oleic varieties, particularly those that comprise 80 [percent] or more oleic acid.” If you use the right type in moderation and avoid processed foods that have used linoleic-rich sunflower oil, then you may be able to count on some of those health benefits.

Based on a few small studies, it’s been found that high oleic sunflower oil may “significantly lower blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.” On top of that, its been found that high oleic sunflower oil consumption may also cause “significant increases in HDL (good) cholesterol, compared with a diet without sunflower oil.”

How to Use Sunflower Oil Safely

Now that we know which type of sunflower oil is safe and which to avoid, how can we go about using this oil in the kitchen?

First off, never use sunflower oil to the point of smoking. While it’s technically suitable for frying, sunflower oil is “unstable and tends to break down with prolonged heating.” Therefore, it’s best to use sunflower oil in raw recipes. Here are a few to give a try!

Homemade Mayonnaise

This vegan Homemade Mayonnaise recipe by Molly Patrick is the perfect beginner recipe to use sunflower oil! There’s no cooking — meaning no heat introduction — and you can swap unhealthy canola oil for a healthier high oleic sunflower oil.

Rich Miso Dressing

While this dressing isn’t the star of the recipe — Sweet Potato, Red Cabbage, and Kelp Noodles with Miso Dressing by Annaliisa Kapp — it can become a wonderful staple in your fridge. Plus, it’s not heavily based on oil, which means you can make a clean and simple swap of high oleic sunflower oil.

Raw Harvest Soup

When choosing to create a soup with sunflower oil, it’s best to go with a cold one like this Raw Harvest Soup recipe by Kristen Suzanne. Instead of flax or olive oil, go ahead and throw some of your high oleic sunflower oil in the pot! This soup has a handful of lovely flavorings, which means the swap won’t mess with the flavor profile.

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If you’re looking to expand your horizons on the plant-based oil front, take a deep dive into some of these helpful articles.

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