Sunflower oil is produced from the seeds of a variety of sunflower (Helianthus annuus). This variety has been bred to produce an oil that is very high in monounsaturated fatty acids, a healthier form of fat. The seeds contain about 40% oil, however they are small and somewhat difficult to harvest and process. Sunflower crops are commercially grown in warmer climates throughout the world and about 80% of these crops are turned into sunflower oil. Sunflower oil is not commonly used in the United States and makes up only about 10% of all vegetable oils sold there. However, it is much more popular in other areas of the world including Australia, India, and areas of Europe and Africa. Today sunflower oil is the fourth most common vegetable oil in the world.
The oil is mostly a mixture of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, a more healthy form of fatty acids, and contains very little unhealthy saturated fats. The main fatty acid in sunflower oil is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. It also contains a small amount of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid. The ratio of linoleic acid to oleic acid in the oil varies depending on where the sunflower crops are grown. Crops grown in warmer climates have higher levels of oleic acid while crops grown in cooler conditions have more linoleic acid. Sunflower oil does not contain any linolenic acid, another polyunsaturated fatty acid found in some vegetable oils that can form unhealthy trans fatty acids during processing. Unlike other vegetable oils, both forms of sunflower oil contain a reasonable level of vitamin E, an important vitamin and antioxidant.
Types of sunflower oil
Sunflower oil can be found in two forms, linoleic or high oleic sunflower oil. Linoleic oil was the original form of sunflower oil and was the most commonly used kind until recently. It is made up of about 65% linoleic acid, 21% oleic acid, and 11% saturated fatty acids. Because this form contains a high level of linoleic acid it is more prone to oxidation and spoilage. It is often hydrogenated commercially to make the oil more stable to resist oxidation. Unfortunately, this hydrogenation often produces harmful trans fatty acids. Linoleic sunflower oil is sold as a liquid oil and can be found in margarine and a variety of baked goods.
The high oleic form of sunflower oil was first sold in 1985 and is the main type of oil sold today. It contains has a much higher level of oleic acid than the linoleic form and actually contains a higher percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids than olive oil. The oil is made up of over 80% oleic acid, 10% linoleic acid, and 10% saturated fatty acids. This means that the oil is more resistant to oxidation and therefore has twice the shelf life of other vegetable oils. Because this form is more stable there is no need to hydrogenate the oil and risk adding trans fatty acids. Additionally, high levels of oleic acids are though to lower cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. High oleic sunflower oil can be found as a liquid oil and in baked goods.
Because sunflower oil is not commonly produced in the United States it can be more difficult to find in the grocery stores than canola oil, corn oil, and other types of vegetable oil. It also tends to be more expensive than regular vegetable oil. However, it has many benefits that make it a worthwhile addition to your kitchen. It has a light taste and does not give off any odors when it is heated. It has a high smoke point, making it useful for high temperature cooking, and stays pourable even when stored in the fridge. The oil can be used in a variety of foods, including salad dressings, baked goods, and for frying and stir-frying foods.