Depending on what information you read, you may hear that sunflower is healthy from some and unhealthy from others. So which is it?
To help those grappling with all this conflicting information, we'd like to weigh in: the answer is not as straightforward as "good" or "bad". Due to the ins and outs of the specific fat makeup of the oil (aka, what KIND of fats are found inside the oil molecules) and how oil is made, this discussion can be confusing and there's a lot of room for gray area and misinformation.
To make this discussion even less straight forward, the type of sunflower oil that was commonly used in the 80s and 90s is becoming less and less prevalent. So we are not always talking about the same thing when we say "sunflower oil."
Currently, we are in the midst of a healthy food movement that has a high emphasis on eating healthy fats. As this trend has gained traction, High Oleic Expeller Pressed Sunflower Oil has become more and more common in the US consumer and ingredient market. This type of sunflower oil is very different than the types of sunflower oil commonly used in decades past.
Let's dive in and help answer the key question: Is sunflower oil good or bad? And, is it an ideal oil for the food that you are making? Today we will review the different types of sunflower oil, how it's made, what this oil is good for (or not), and the science that is behind it.
Sunflower Oil Characteristics
Sunflower oil often used for sautéing and frying because it doesn't impart its own flavor into foods. It is an oil with a mild and unobtrusive taste, and it has a high heat tolerance. More often, it is used for it's functionality (long shelf life, good fry life, high stability) rather than it's flavor.
This oil, in general, has:
- A minimal flavor profile and a mild aroma
- High smoke point and good heat tolerance
- High oleic versions are stable with long fry and shelf life
- Light yellow color that's almost clear
With all these good features, why wouldn't someone want to use sunflower oil? And if some people are saying it's bad, why is that?
It mainly has to do with the different types of sunflower oil available: Some have healthy fats, and some have unhealthy fats. Also, it has to do with the sunflower oil that people remember being common 10 or 20 years ago vs. what seems to be taking over the market today. Lastly, as one kind of "vegetable oil," it can be confused with some of the downsides of other vegetable oils.
Sunflower Oil has different grades, each with a different level of polyunsaturated vs. monounsaturated oil. The grades are:
- High Oleic Sunflower Oil
- Mid-Oleic Sunflower Oil (sometimes called NuSun)
- Linoleic Sunflower Oil or Classic Sunflower Oil
The Types of Sunflower Oil
Linoleic/Classic Sunflower Oil
Traditional sunflower oils have fallen into two categories, one high in oleic acid (also known as monounsaturated fats) and the second one in high linoleic acid (also known as polyunsaturated fats). Linoleic acid (polyunsaturated fat) is one of the essential fatty acids in the human diet, but you also shouldn't get too much of it.
Looking at the graph below, you can see that Linoleic varieties of sunflower oil (the bottom bar) contain nearly 70 percent polyunsaturated linoleic acid. Another 20 percent is in monounsaturated oleic acid, and the remaining 10 to 11 percent is saturated fat.
High Oleic Sunflower Oil
This sunflower oil (shown on the top bar above) is radically different than linoleic sunflower oil in its makeup. It consists primarily of monounsaturated oleic acids, at around 80 percent of the total. Saturated fats and polyunsaturated linoleic acid make up the balance in equal proportions.
Bulk high oleic sunflower is essential in the manufacture of food products because it remains stable without hydrogenation and will not go rancid in storage.
High oleic sunflower oil has even higher monounsaturated fat levels than olive oil -- and olive oil is often known and marketed specifically for having high levels of this healthy type of fat.
Mid-Oleic Sunflower Oil
This type of sunflower oil takes a middle position between the two traditional oils above. Monounsaturated oleic acid accounting for roughly two-thirds of the fat content. Polyunsaturated linoleic acid at approximately 25% and about 9% saturated fat.
In the last 10 years, more and more farmers have moved to high oleic sunflower oil. Depending on the year though, this oil goes in and out of tight supply -- and 2020 is one of those tight supply years!
Polyunsaturated Fat vs. Monounsaturated Levels
Arguments for or against sunflower oil typically have to do with the higher levels of polyunsaturated fas vs. monounsaturated fat. If you want to learn more about the types of fat we discussed above, we recommend swapping over to read these articles first:
Did you know that as humans, we need both types of fat? Polyunsaturated fat used to be hailed in the 70s as the healthiest type of fat. That said, science has developed more since then, and they are learning that monounsaturated fats are the "healthy-for-you" fats. They now show that these are the type of fats that protect, rather than oxidizing, once they're in your body. So the mantra of what type of sunflower oil you should eat has shifted over time.
Doesn't Contain High Trans Fat
Another claim against sunflower oil is that people say that it's high in trans fats because it's a partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are not just bad but downright dangerous for you to consume, and are something a lot of people seem to discuss when they talk about vegetable oils in general. Seed oils, they say, including sunflower oil, are modified to be solid at room temperature, and therefore contain trans fats.
There are a few truths and a few misconceptions tucked into this debate about sunflower in here. It is true that vegetable oils like canola and soybean oil used to be partially hydrogenated to be solid at room temperature. This process has been used for decades as a replacement for butter -- aka, that's how they made margarine for years.
Most sunflower oils, however, are liquid now -- and so this argument doesn't apply. Sunflower oil is naturally a liquid, and it doesn't contain the high level of trans fat that is created through the partial hydrogenation process.
While we are discussing this topic, here is a bit of background on the updated status of partially hydrogenated oils in general.
In recent years these PHOs have been looked at more closely by scientists and legislation alike. In July of 2018, PHOs were officially no longer considered GRAS by the FDA. GRAS is a term that means Generally Recognized As Safe. That is right -- partially hydrogenated oils are no longer considered safe to eat by the US government back in 2018. At that time, companies were working for months to reformulate products so that they no longer contain these partially hydrogenated oils.
To be clear on this front, stay away from PHOs at all costs. The partial hydrogenation process leaves unstable molecules, which is what creates trans fats. Fully hydrogenated oil is different and is much more stable: and it's still a process being used today. These oils don't contain trans fats, and you're going to see them more and more in the years to come.
All of that said, sunflower oil is naturally found as a liquid oil, and wasn't often sold in a solid partiall-hydrogenated form in the past. If you stick to the liquid version of this oil, it won't contain high levels of trans fats in the same way that a PHO soybean oil and PHO canola oil would.
Expeller Pressed or Solvent Expelled
Another claim against sunflower oil is that it's expelled using solvents. This is not always true.
All sunflower oils can be expeller-pressed or solvent expelled. This is a description of how the oil is pulled out of the seeds. Expeller pressed oils physically squeezed from the seed without using chemicals to extract it. Solvent expelled oils use a chemical like hexane to pull the oil out of the seed.
Most linoleic or classic sunflower oils DO use solvent expelling. This is just a matter of the price demand for this particular oil. Most people buying traditional sunflower oil are looking for a lower cost, and solvent expelling costs less to do.
On the other hand, a lot of the high oleic sunflower oil on the market is expelled using an expeller press. That being said, it still can be solvent expelled, so it's essential to look for the description "expeller pressed".
Is It Refined?
Yes, sunflower oil is refined no matter which grade you pick. This refining process is typically called RBD in the bulk world. RBD stands for Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized. These terms represent how the oil is processed after being produced.
It means that the oil went through a refining process, which strips a lot of the natural color and flavor from the oil. The exact process is different for each type of oil, though there are components that look very similar. For the most part, its typically a high heat process, which uses heat or steam under vaccuum. They also usually use an earthen bleaching clay to pull any pigment out of the oil.
Is there risk in this process? This oil is brought up to high temperature, but it's under a completely sealed vaccuum. Therefore, you don't see molecular changes that happen at high heat when the oil is exposed to air (smoking or other molecular changes).
Lastly, the process will often involve filtering or sometimes double filtering the final product. The result is a light-colored, neutral-flavored, almost clear oil. The refining process is also done to many different oils: for example soybean, canola, coconut, and grapeseed oil along with pure olive oil extra light olive oil and many more.
Want an unrefined oil? The only oils that are not refined are Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, or oils that state "unrefined" clearly on the label.
These discussions around fats don't often have black and white answers. To give you the best advice for your health, you have to look into the details -- the gray area.
Classic sunflower oil has higher levels of polyunsaturated fats, which you shouldn't have in excess. They also often are solvent expelled. If anything used to be partially hydrogenated for sunflower oil, this grade was it. So you are correct; classic sunflower oil isn't very healthy.
High Oleic expeller pressed sunflower oil, however, is a different story. It has a higher monounsaturated fat level than olive oil does and is expeller pressed. Aka, it doesn't use a chemical solvent. This one is what we like to say as a somewhat healthy oil for you in comparison to other options.
Which Sunflower Oil Should I Choose?
You should choose a sunflower oil that is lower in polyunsaturated fats and higher in monounsaturated fats. We would point you to high oleic sunflower oil as the healthiest sunflower oil. In addition, look for an oil that has been expeller pressed or even better, one that's organic.
Our two favorite sunflower oils can be purchased in bulk online here: