Sunflower oils have been touted to be healthy, primary because they contain vitamin E antioxidants and have a high cooking point. However, a close examination of this type of oil shows that much depends on the type of sunflower oil in question and that some could promote inflammation and production of dangerous compounds at high temperatures.
Sunflower oils are made from processed sunflower (Helianthus annus) seeds and are yellow with mild-tasting flavors. They have multiple culinary options, and some also make good oils used in industrial baking. Sunflower oils lack sodium, fat, and protein but have high-fat content and some vitamin E, antioxidants the body needs to fight free radicals that would be damaging to cells if left to accumulate. Besides, they have a high smoke point, making them be touted as healthy. However, much depends on the types of sunflower oil in question and the concentration of linoleic or oleic acids. Besides, some are pro-inflammatory, and also boast high amounts of saturated fats that studies link to poor heart health. You thus may wonder if this type of cooking oil is healthy, and if you should use it for cooking. Here is what you need to know.
Types of sunflower oils and relationship with culinary applications and cooking
There are different types of sunflower oils depending on the percentage of linoleic, oleic, and stearic fatty acid compositions. Actually, the US breeds four types of sunflower plants, each having the type of fatty acid to be optimized. Linoleic acids are the polyunsaturated omega- 6s touted to be unhealthy and pro-inflammatory. On the other hand, oleic fatty acids are monounsaturated fats, primarily omega- 9s, which have different effects on the body. The two types of unsaturated fats have double bonds (1 or 2 double bonds for mono- or poly-unsaturated fats, respectively), making them stable as liquids at room temperature. Lastly, stearic acid is a saturated fat typically solid at room temperature and has no double bonds. While sunflower oils having unsaturated fats in high percentage are often used for high-heat cooking, those capitalizing stearic acids are often used in preparing baked products. Here are the major types of sunflower oils and the percentages of linoleic, oleic, or stearic acids;
- High-linoleic; have 68% linoleic acids, revealing high omega- 6s concentrations
- Mid-oleic (NuSun); have 65% oleic acids, showing slightly more omega- 9s
- High-oleic; have 82% oleic acids, revealing some of the highest omega- 9 concentrations
- High oleic-high stearic (NutriSun); have 72% oleic acids and 18% stearic acids, revealing balanced concentrations of oleic and stearic acids.
How high linoleic, mid-oleic, and high-oleic sunflower oils compare nutritionally
High-linoleic, mid-, and high-oleic sunflower oil types are liquids at room temperature but may still be used for different culinary applications. While they resemble in some aspects, there are slight nutritional variations among them. For instance, a tablespoon (14 ml) of all the three types has 120 calories, 14 g of total fat, and 1 g of saturated fat. However, they have 3 g & 9 g, 8 g & 4 g, or 11 g & 0.5 g of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats per a spoon of high-linoleic, mid-oleic, and high-oleic oils, respectively. Clearly, high-linoleic oils have the lowest monosaturated fat content but are heavy in polyunsaturated fats, while high-oleic sunflower oils are heavy with monounsaturated fats and lowest in polyunsaturated fats.
What are the potential health benefits of sunflower oils?
All sunflower oils have no protein, carb, fiber, and sodium contents, regardless of the type. However, they all have vitamin E, a type of antioxidants studies have found to be beneficial for overall health and a reduced risk of free radical damage. What’s more, most health benefits found in sunflower oils are attributed to the oleic fat concentration in the oils. As such, the types with high oleic acid concentrations could be healthier than those with high linoleic acid concentrations since the latter is more pro-inflammatory.
Studies investigating the health effects of high-oleic sunflower oils show that higher concentrations of oleic fats in sunflower oils are linked to better health and an improved heart condition. For instance, one study followed 24 individuals taking a diet rich in high-oleic sunflower oils or other cooking oils for 2 months. In the end, the high-oleic sunflower oil group showed increased levels of HDL cholesterols, indicating improved heart health. Elsewhere, another study monitored 15 people eating foods rich in high-oleic sunflower oils or other cooking oils for two and half months. In the end, the first group showed a greater decrease in the LDL cholesterol and triglyceride level, revealing better heart conditions than the other group taking foods prepared with other cooking oils. Consequently, the FDA recommends high-oleic sunflower oils because of the seemingly associated heart-related benefits, but more studies are still needed to make things more conclusive.
The health drawbacks related to sunflower oils
Although some types of sunflower oils seem to be healthy, they still have associated health concerns, including;
i. Emission of the dangerous aldehydes
Sunflower oils are often used for high-heat cooking because they have a high smoke point. However, studies show that some types of sunflower oil release the dangerous aldehyde compounds when exposed to high heating and may not be very stable at high temperatures. In fact, exposing sunflower oils, primarily the high-linoleic types, to high-temperature cooking such as deep-frying for longer produced many aldehydes, linking them to increased risks of inflammation and neurodegenerative complications.
ii. High omega- 6 concentrations
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are essential oils, meaning the body cannot produce them and has to get them from diets. They are healthy fats whose moderate concentrations make cells healthy, but higher concentrations tend to be detrimental. What’s more, polyunsaturated fats, primarily omega- 6s, tend to be more pro-inflammatory than the unsaturated omega- 9 fats. As such, sunflower oils with higher linoleic (omega- 6) concentrations are linked to increased inflammation. Inflammation should be a healthy immune response, but when it continues non-stop, it turns out dangerous, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases. Consequently, the high-linoleic sunflower oil versions may not make healthy picks.
Sunflower oils are manufactured from pressed sunflower seeds. They are popularized as healthy oils since they are high in oleic fat and vitamin E, an antioxidant the body needs to fight free radicals. However, not all sunflower oils have high oleic oil concentrations, with some having 68% or high linoleic fat concentrations. These versions are not healthy since they are pro-inflammatory, release more aldehyde compounds, and are linked to increased risks of chronic conditions.