These days, there are so many oils to choose from. Whether you’re looking for an oil to use in your cooking, skin or haircare routine, or for your family’s general use, there’s never been more options.
But is sunflower oil healthy?
Is sunflower oil better than olive oil?
Depending on who you ask, sunflower seed oil is either a versatile, healthy oil – or to be avoided at all costs.
The reality is a little more complicated. Sunflower oil can be a healthy choice – but there are a few things to bear in mind.
What is sunflower oil?
Sunflower oil is made from pressing sunflower seeds – harvested from the sunflower plant helianthus annuus – to extract their oil.1
Sunflower oil has increased in prevalence over the past century, primarily due to a changing diet across the Western world.
It’s used as a frying oil, in the manufacture of mayonnaise and oil‐based dressings as well as to make shortenings and margarines. Industrial uses include the manufacture of biodiesel, industrial lubricants, ink and cosmetics.2
Is sunflower oil good for health?
Is sunflower oil good for you? Nutrients in sunflower oil include a high level of vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that can help protect cells from oxidative damage. Oxidative damage can lead to various diseases, as well as premature ageing.3
Sunflower oil is also low in saturated fat and contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the form of omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids – both required for a healthy diet.4
Impressively, the unsaturated fats in sunflower oil have shown to reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol after being included in the diet for six months.5 This could be beneficial in helping to protect you from cardiovascular disease.
It’s worth bearing in mind that sunflower oil usually does contain some saturated fat, in the form of stearic acid. However, stearic acid is the only saturated fat which doesn’t raise LDL cholesterol.6
Sunflower oil calories are high as is typical of any oil – at 124kcal per tablespoon, so you shouldn’t have too much, or it can cause weight gain.7
The key to whether sunflower oil is a healthy choice lies in the composition of fats it contains.
The fat composition of sunflower oil
Sunflower oil contains both types of unsaturated fat – monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat.8
- Monounsaturated fat – in the form of the omega 3 fatty acid oleic acid
- Polyunsaturated fat – in the form of the omega 6 fatty acid linoleic acid
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can be good choices to help you cut down on saturated fats in your diet. Remember, too much saturated fat can elevate your levels of LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol.9
Omega 3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, whereas omega 6 fatty acids can actually cause inflammation in the body when we get too many of them. Inflammation is a key factor in the development of many diseases, including heart disease and cancer.10
However, we need both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – in different amounts – to stay healthy.
Some scientists believe that the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is 1:1, although the modern Western diet is closer to 17:1 omega 6 to omega 3.11
Different sunflower oils contain different ratios of omega 3 and omega 6. It’s the sunflower oils which are higher in omega 3 (oleic acid) than omega 6 (linoleic acid) which are considered healthiest.
There are four main types of sunflower oil composition12:
- High-oleic sunflower oil is 75–91% oleic acid. It’s also highest in omega 3, with a smaller amount of omega 6. This is the healthiest choice. Oleic acid has been shown to help lower LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol and raise the HDL (or ‘good’) cholesterol.13
- Mid-oleic (about 43–72% oleic acid) has higher omega 3 than omega 6 but doesn’t contain as much omega 3 as the high-oleic variety.
- High-oleic with stearic acid – high in omega 3 and lower in omega 6, this is also considered healthy.
- High-linoleic is highest in omega 6, with a smaller amount of omega 3 (about 14–39% oleic acid). High-linoleic sunflower oil is the type associated with inflammation.
Today, thanks to plant breeding, there are plenty of varieties of sunflower oil with a high composition of oleic acid, so it should be relatively easy to find in shops.14
- Made from pressing sunflower seeds, sunflower oil is one of the world’s most prevalent oils
- Sunflower oil contains the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as healthy unsaturated fats
- High-oleic sunflower oils are rich in omega 3 fat and can help reduce inflammation
- High-linoleic sunflower oils have higher levels of omega 6 fat and can cause inflammation
Which is the best sunflower oil for cooking?
You might have heard about using sunflower oil for frying, as it has a high smoke point. This means it can be heated to a high temperature (around 230C) before it starts to smoke.
However, polyunsaturated fats (such as those found in sunflower oil) become oxidised when heated, giving off free radicals which are harmful to health.14
So – how can sunflower be a good oil to cook with if it becomes toxic when heated?
Again, it’s about the type of sunflower oil you choose.
The high-linoleic type of sunflower oil is the type which is considered ‘volatile’, ‘unstable’ and unsuitable for cooking. If you want to use sunflower oil for deep frying, be aware that it’s only high-oleic sunflower oil that is suitable for high heat cooking.16
To further ensure the sunflower oil you’re choosing offers the health benefits you’re after, ensure that it’s cold pressed sunflower oil. If an oil isn’t labelled ‘cold-pressed’, the oil has likely been extracted from the seed using high heat.
Remember, high heat degrades sunflower oil and can cause oxidation and the release of free radicals.
It’s also a good idea to choose organic sunflower oil, which will have been grown without any pesticides and GMOs, so you can be sure the oil is free from adulterations.
What is the healthiest oil to cook with?
So, how does sunflower oil stack up in comparison to other popular cooking oils? We take a look at some pros and cons to find out.
Pros: With 41g of vitamin E per 100g, sunflower oil has twice as much of this antioxidant as olive oil.
Sunflower oil is rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, comprising the omega 3 oleic acid and omega 6 linoleic acid which is anti-inflammatory and can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.17
Sunflower oil is low in saturated fat with 10.3g saturated fat per 100g.
Cons: High-linoleic sunflower oil contains a relatively high level of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats.18
Sunflower oil only contains 5.4mcg of vitamin K per 100g, less than some other oils.
Pros: With 14g vitamin E per 100g, olive oil is a good source of this antioxidant. Olive oil also lots of vitamin K with 60mcg vitamin K per 100g.19
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, including a high content of oleic acid as well as potent anti-inflammatory compounds such as oleocanthal.20
Olive oil is low in saturated fat, with 13.8g saturated fat per 100g.
Cons: Olive oil is considered by many to be the king of oils, due to its health benefits and versatility. It’s not great for deep-frying, however, as it’s not stable after about 160C.21
Pros: Coconut oil contains traces of iron, calcium and vitamin E.22 The fats in coconut oil can raise the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in the body.23
Cons: Coconut oil is 82% saturated fat which might be bad news for anyone watching their weight or at risk of high cholesterol.
Pros: Soybean oil contains a little vitamin E, with 8g per 100g. It’s very high in vitamin K, with 183mcg per 100g.24
It’s low in saturated fat at around 15%, and high in polyunsaturated fats which could have protective effects on cardiovascular health.25
With a high smoke point of around 230C, it’s good for deep frying.26
Cons: With a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats, soybean oil should be used sparingly in favour of higher omega 3 oils like olive and high-oleic sunflower oils.
Pros: Canola oil contains 17g of vitamin E per 100g and is high in vitamin K with 71mcg per 100g.27
It’s very low in saturated fat at only around 7%, and with a smoke point over 200C, it’s a decent choice for frying.28
Canola oil contains healthy polyunsaturated omega 3 fats.
Cons: Canola oil can contain up to 4.2% trans fats, which are harmful to health, so always check the label.29
Pros: Sesame oil contains 13.6g vitamin K per 100g and is low in saturated fat at around 14%.30 It’s shown in study to be useful in helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and inflammation thanks to its polyunsaturated fat content.31
With a smoke point around 210C, you can deep fry with light sesame oil.32
Cons: With only 1.5mcg of vitamin E per 100g, that’s lower than most oils.
Pros: Peanut oil contains around 15.6g of vitamin E per 100g.33 It’s low to medium in saturated fat with around 17g per 100g, as well as containing LDL (bad) cholesterol-reducing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.34
It’s got a high smoke point at 232C, so it’s fine to fry with.35
Cons: It only contains traces of vitamin K with 0.7mcg per 100g. Peanut oil is also a little high in pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats to be considered a perfect choice.
Can you use sunflower oil for skin?
Putting the same stuff they use to fry chips onto your face might not seem like a beauty secret you’d want to copy, but hear us out.
Sunflower oil’s outstanding vitamin E content (more than any other oil!) means that it’s perfect for applying topically to your skin.
Vitamin E has emollient properties, meaning it helps keep moisture inside the skin, helping it look plump and hydrated. Vitamin E is also an antioxidant which can help prevent oxidative damage to cells which cause visible ageing of the skin.36
You can use sunflower oil as a moisturising treatment on both the face and body. Apply after bathing or showering for best results.
Can you use sunflower oil for hair?
As with skin, sunflower oil is nourishing and hydrating for both hair and scalp.
You could use a drop as a serum for dry, damaged ends. It’s very rich, so a little goes a long way.
For an all-over nourishing hair mask which will impart shine and treat a dry scalp, use gently warmed sunflower oil (a few seconds in the microwave is all it takes) and massage from roots to ends. Cover with a shower cap and leave for 30 minutes before shampooing out.
- Sunflower oil benefits can include lowered cholesterol and reduced inflammation
- We need more omega 3 fats than omega 6 fats for optimal health
- The high-oleic variety of sunflower oil contains more omega 3 fats than 6, and is considered beneficial for health
- High-oleic sunflower oil is recommended for cooking
- Sunflower oil is great for skin and hair
Last updated: 23 April 2021