Is It Good or Bad for You?
What is sunflower oil?
Sunflower oil, or sunflower seed oil, is extracted from sunflower seeds. Like most vegetable oils, it is available in both cold-pressed and refined forms. Cold-pressed, unrefined sunflower oil is relatively rare compared to refined oil. It has a low smoke point of 160°C (320°F) and is best suited for low-heat applications such as salad dressings for its flavourful taste. On the other hand, refined sunflower oil has a high smoke point of 226°C – 246°C (440 – 475°F), making it one of the most popular vegetable oils employed for high-heat cooking, including sautéing and deep-frying.
Types of sunflower oil
Sunflower oil is mainly divided into 3 types based on the amount of oleic acid and linoleic acid present in them:
Fatty Acid Breakdown of mid-oleic sunflower oil, which is typically the sunflower oil that you will buy at a retail store or supermarket.
Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio = 1 : 12
Refined sunflower oil lacks nutrients such as vitamin E and polyphenols, compared to its unrefined counterpart. Among the health benefits of unrefined, cold-pressed sunflower oil are:
- Promote heart health:
Sunflower oil helps improve blood lipid profile. It effectively reduces serum cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol1, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The cholesterol-lowering effect of cholesterol may be attributed to the phytosterols, a compound that blocks cholesterol absorption by the body.
- Provide antioxidant protection:
Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, which serves as an antioxidant in the body2. Antioxidant fights free radicals – the compounds that are harmful if their levels become too high in the body. Free radicals have been linked to various diseases, including poor immunity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
- May protect gastrointestinal tract:
When sunflower oil is used together with NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), it helps reduce gastric damage, an adverse side effect of the drug3.
- May help fight cancer:
In a mouse skin tumour model, sunflower oil offers 40% protection against cancer, which may be attributed to the sesamol in the oil4.
- Imbalance omega-3 to omega-6 ratio
Sunflower oil contains far more omega-6s than omega-3, with omega-3 to omega-6 ratio 1 : 12. Modern lifestyle diet is already high in omega-6 fatty acids. Excessive intake of omega-6s can trigger the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body5, which may increase the risk of certain chronic diseases, including arthritis, asthma, heart disease and cancer. If you are using sunflower oil, make sure you eat plenty of omega-3-rich foods such as fatty fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnut etc. Alternatively, you may replace it with other cooking oils that are high in omega-3s, such as camelina oil and flaxseed oil.
- Refined sunflower oil is not good for health
Refined sunflower oil goes through many different processes that involve chemicals and high temperature in the manufacturing process. The amounts of processing will damage the beneficial nutrients that it originally contained. Furthermore, polyunsaturated fatty acids may oxidise and turn into trans-fats (which are harmful) in the refining process. Nevertheless, refined sunflower oil has a high smoke point, which make it ideal for high-heat cooking.
- Cold-pressed sunflower oil has low smoke point
Unrefined, cold-pressed sunflower oil has a low smoke point of 160°C and should not be used for high-heat cooking, such as deep frying or grilling. It is more suited for salad dressings and low-temperature cooking, such as steaming and simmering. Cold-pressed oils are more nutritious to the body than the highly refined oils, besides retaining the original flavours that would enhance the taste of food.