Sunflower oil is an edible oil obtained from the seed kernels of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus). Depending on the method of extraction employed, it can be used both for cooking at high temperatures and raw in various dishes. What makes sunflower oil a healthy option is its low saturated fatty acid and high unsaturated fatty acid content. However, not all sunflower oil is the same, some varieties having different properties than others. Extraction method, cooking temperature as well amount consumed can all influence its effects on our health.
What does sunflower oil look like? Depending on how the oil is extracted from the seed kernels, sunflower oil may range in color from a beautiful, deeper yellow to a pale yellow. What does sunflower oil taste and smell like? Overall, sunflower oil has a mild flavor, a subtle fatty taste and oily fragrance. However, the different extraction methods employed for its production, the use of different plant varieties or hybrids, possible refining of the oil, cooking heat etc. can influence flavor and fragrance to a more noticeable extent. Color, taste and smell are more pronounced in the unrefined oil.
How is sunflower oil extracted? There are two main methods of extraction oil from the seeds:
1) Cold pressing. Just like olive oil, sunflower oil can be obtained by pressing together the seed kernels until they release their oils. It is called ‘cold’ pressing because the seed kernels are not exposed to any form of heat during the extraction of the oil. Sunflower oil obtained through cold pressing is a surprisingly healthy oil because this extraction method helps preserve all of its natural properties. The resulting oil is also known as unrefined sunflower seed oil. This variety is however not suitable for frying because it is not very stable when exposed to high temperatures. Instead, it can be used fresh in salads, dressings or added to all sorts of dishes at the end of the cooking process. It can also be used with low heat.
2) Chemical extraction. A more popular extraction method of sunflower oil is the use of chemical solvents. Various chemical compounds are employed to extract the oils from the seed kernels. Further refining may occur and the oil is called refined sunflower seed oil. The reason why this extraction method is so popular is because the resulting oil is much more heat-stable and thus more suitable for high heat cooking.
Sunflower seed oil types
What is the difference between unrefined and refined sunflower oil? Sunflower oil obtained through cold pressing, or unrefined sunflower oil, has a golden yellow or amber color, a slightly fatty, more pronounced flavor and a noticeable oily fragrance, similar to that of perfectly ripe seed kernels. It may be slightly cloudy or contain impurities if it has not been filtered. Sunflower oil extracted with the help of chemical compounds, or refined sunflower oil, is a lighter yellow, has a more bland taste and little to no smell. As a result of the extraction method employed for its production it may lose some of its beneficial compounds. Both types may differ in terms of health effects.
What is it good for?
The most notable properties and health benefits of sunflower oil include the following:
1) Rich source of healthy fats. Sunflower oil contains high amounts of healthy unsaturated fatty acids (approximately 89%) and very little unhealthy saturated fats (about 11%). Use of different varieties and hybrids of sunflower plants as well as environmental factors can engender differences in the fatty acid profile of the oil.
Typical sunflower oil fatty acid profile:
Omega-6 (linoleic acid) 59 g
Omega-9 (oleic acid) 30 g
Saturated fats (palmitic and stearic acid) 11 g
2) Boasts cardiovascular benefits. Most of the properties and health benefits of sunflower seed oil have to do with its unsaturated fatty acid content. Research suggests polyunsaturated Omega-6 fatty acids hold quite potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Both Omega-6 and Omega-9 fatty acids are said to help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and possibly raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels, as well as exert an overall protective action on the cardiovascular system, with blood pressure lowering and anti-inflammatory effects.
However, a higher than needed intake of Omega-6 and Omega-9 is believed to increase the risk of certain diseases, notably estrogen sensitive cancers. Also, Omega-6 fatty acids compete with Omega-3 fatty acids in the body, so if we want to enjoy any health benefits from eating sunflower oil, we have to maintain a moderate intake and an equal ratio of 1:1 or at least 3:1 between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats.
3) Good for the brain. Our brain is made of and works on fats. Healthy unsaturated fatty acids such as Omega-6 and Omega-9 from sunflower oil benefit brain function and contribute to maintaining and enhancing it. For instance, when I’ve been working for long hours and I’ve burnt through the fats in my latest meal, I often experience a sort of brain fog: confusion, forgetfulness, inability to focus and overall poor clarity of thinking. Symptoms tend to disappear soon after I eat fats. While there are much healthier brain foods to choose from (see benefits of sunflower seeds), modest amounts of sunflower oil can help support and improve nervous function and prove beneficial for brain health.
4) Great skin emollient. Fats are by definition great for moisturizing. And sunflower seed oil is great for dry skin because of its strong emollient properties. While eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can also help achieve plump skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles, sunflower oil is best used externally. It can be applied in small amounts on the face, either alone or in combination with other ingredients, and left to moisturize the skin. Moreover, the fatty acids it contains boast antioxidant properties and may help prevent or delay wrinkles. Sunflower oil is also used as massage oil. Unrefined oil is preferred because it preserves most of its beneficial compounds.
5) Rich in vitamin E. What is sunflower oil? Simple: a fat. And like most fats, it is an extremely rich source of vitamin E (41.08 mg per 100 g), a powerful antioxidant and fat soluble essential nutrient. This means that eating moderate amounts of preferably unrefined sunflower oil not only helps us meet our daily demands of this precious nutrient, but also contributes to skin health via the antioxidant properties of the vitamin. Of course, eating sunflower seed kernels would supply us with significant amounts of vitamin E as well. Sunflower oil contains small amounts of carotenoids and vitamin K (5.4 mcg).
6) Nourishing hair mask. Sunflower oil can be successfully used for hair repair. Being a fat, it makes a wonderful conditioning mask and helps repair damaged hair by smoothing out the hair cuticles and calming scalp dryness and irritation, further encouraging hair repair. Applying sunflower oil to the hair regularly can help improve its appearance and make it stronger. It is an even better option than olive oil because it is not that expensive. All you have to do is massage the scalp and hair with sunflower oil for a couple of minutes and leave it on for one, two hours or overnight, then wash as usual.
Sunflower seed oil might not be at the top of our preferences, especially with so many other more flavorful options available. However, the unrefined oil is as natural as it gets and moderate consumption ensures we enjoy the best of its properties, from antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits to skin moisturizing and hair conditioning effects. It is important to remember that sunflower oil is only good for us as long as we keep our intake low, go for the unrefined type and substitute other less healthy fat sources in our diet with it so we enjoy moderation and good health.