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August 14, 2022 — 11:08 AM
A bouquet of sunflowers is one of the most inviting floral displays available, so should sunflower oil also become a staple in your household? There are so many different forms of oil lining the shelves of the grocery store and each variation offers a unique selection of benefits to nourish your body with healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil is generally touted as the most nutritious cooking oil, but sunflower oil also contains some noteworthy nutrients—is it worth the swap? Here’s everything you need to know about this form of cooking oil.
Sunflower oil comes in three different forms: high-oleic, mid-oleic, and linoleic oil. Differences in these oils lie within their fatty acid profile. Oleic acid is a type of monounsaturated fatty acid (or MUFA) whereas linoleic acid is a type of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid (or PUFA). So a high-oleic sunflower oil has a high MUFA profile, whereas a linoleic sunflower oil is predominantly composed of omega-6 PUFAs. So which is the best choice?
The healthiest sunflower oil is the high-oleic acid variety. “Oleic acid is an omega-9 fatty acid that has been associated with improved heart health—specifically, reduced cholesterol and reduced inflammation,” explains mbg Collective member and registered dietitian Jess Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN. “Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid. While we need some omega-6, too much has been associated with increased inflammation in the body.”
These differences in health outcomes are linked to the fatty acid’s ability to resist oxidative damage during refining and cooking. Why does that matter? Well, oil that experiences significant damage can ultimately drive unhealthy processes in the body such as oxidative stress and inflammation, physician Cate Shanahan, M.D., a respected authority on vegetable and seed oils and author of The Fatburn Fix previously told mindbodygreen. And omega-6 PUFAs, like linoleic sunflower oil, are more readily oxidized than PUFAs.
TL;DR: So, although linoleic sunflower oil may be the most common, it’s high-oleic oil you should be reaching for. (And for a deeper dive on the nuance of sunflower oil, check out our guide.)
5 health benefits of sunflower oil:
In addition to being a healthy fats within a balanced diet, some notable benefits of sunflower oil include:
1. Protection against cell damage.
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“All sunflower oil contains vitamin E, which has antioxidant properties associated with protection against cell damage,” explains Cording. Specifically, vitamin E helps scavenge free radicals (found within certain foods and pollutants) that cause cell damage, and combats oxidative stress to help promote healthy aging.
2. Topical skin hydration & support.
While linoleic sunflower oil may not be the ideal form to cook with, it may help hydrate the skin’s barrier when used topically. In fact, one study revealed that this plant oil may actually help to repair the skin’s barrier while improving hydration and aiding in wound healing.
When applied topically, sunflower oil can also help fight against UV damage and inflammation as it contains vitamin E (a well-known, fat-soluble antioxidant).
It’s worth noting that olive oil can also provide your complexion with similar benefits.
3. Supports heart health.
Not only does sunflower oil support healthy and hydrated skin—it can be a great option to cook with, as well. “Including polyunsaturated fatty acid-rich oils such as sunflower oil has a positive effect on cholesterol buildup, which affects the incidence of cardiovascular disease,” notes integrative nutritionist Ella Davar, R.D., CDN.
That being said, this applies to high-oleic sunflower oil. “Oleic acid is a famously heart-healthy constituent of a Mediterranean dietary pattern and lifestyle,” our in-house nutritionist and vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN previously told mbg.
Of course, other common foods such as avocado and certain nuts also contain fatty acids, but if you’re looking to sneak this macronutrient into a salad dressing or veggie dish, sunflower oil may be a good option.
What does high-oleic mean?
As mentioned, sunflower oil comes in several different forms: high-oleic, mid-oleic, and linoleic. The latter is most commonly found at the grocery store, but it’s high-oleic oil that provides the most significant health benefits.
“Oleic type sunflower oil contains nutrients and vitamins, as does standard sunflower oil, but a higher level of oleic acid makes it fit better with healthy eating standards than many other oils,” explains Davar. “Additionally, the high-oleic oil qualifies as a high stability oil without hydrogenation.”
What is the best way to use sunflower oil in your cooking?
Sunflower oil is less stable when exposed to heat as other options like olive oil or avocado oil, so Cording suggests using this ingredient for recipes that require a lower temperature to reap the full benefits. “I’d be likely to recommend using it for things like salad dressing, marinades, or for shorter cooking times at lower temperatures,” she recommends. “Maybe [try] sauteeing some veggies instead of grilling them.”
How does sunflower oil compare to other cooking oils?
The stability of an oil refers to how well it avoids breaking down when exposed to oxygen. “While high-oleic sunflower oil is more stable than linoleic sunflower oil, canola oil, and vegetable oil, it is still not as stable as other high-oleic oil like olive oil and avocado oil,” explains Cording. Therefore, if you’re going to be cooking at high heats, it may be worth cooking with an olive or avocado oil instead.
What happens if you buy linoleic sunflower oil?
You may find yourself fixating on the nutritional value of each ingredient within your meals, but just remember that even if you do occasionally consume linoleic oil, it’s not going to destroy your body. “It’s important not to freak out if you see a linoleic oil on a label of a food you only eat very occasionally,” notes Cording. “But if you eat a lot of foods high in linoleic acids and few that are high in oleic acid, then consider a few approachable swaps you could make.” In short, before buying sunflower oil, it’s worth checking the label as experts don’t advice frequent consumption of linoleic acid.
There is a lot of nuance when it comes to sunflower oil, but with healthy fats and some significant benefits, sunflower oil may be worth including in your cooking rotation—just make sure you’re purchasing high-oleic option. Sunflower oil can be a great base for your salad dressing or sautéed veggies, for both internal and external benefits.
It’s easy to become a creature of habit when it comes to grocery shopping, but adding sunflower oil to your cart (alongside a fresh bouquet of flowers) can add some variety to your cooking.
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