Sunflower seeds are awesome! Seeds and nuts contain many vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Sunflower seeds have many other benefits too including boosting the immune system and providing anti-inflammatory advantages. Sunflower seeds also contain melatonin making them a good evening time food. We love adding sunflower seeds to our homemade granola, tossing them in salads with a homemade salad dressing, enjoying them as sunbutter (a substitute for peanut butter), or just packing them raw or roasted as a snack or as part of an easy lunch.
But there is a big difference between sunflower seeds and the oil of those seeds. Is sunflower oil healthy?
Sunflower seeds are used to make sunflower seed oil. Additionally, high oleic sunflowers were developed to deliver much higher levels of monounsaturated fats than that from traditional oil sunflower seeds. These oils have some important differences in terms of the fatty acid content, and certain questions arise with the development of new seeds. Let’s explore below.
Sunflower seed oil is considered a seed oil. It is primarily made up of linoleic acid. The average percentage of linoleic acid in sunflower seed oil is 59% however some sunflower seed oil is upwards of about 75% linoleic acid. So is sunflower oil healthy? Let’s explore.
Is sunflower oil healthy?
What is linoleic acid?
Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid and the main type of omega-6 fatty acid, and we must consume some in order to have a complete diet. However, the recommended consumption of linoleic acid (Omega-6) is only 0.5% of caloric intake, with a maximum amount of 2%. That is a very small amount. In contrast to this recommendation, Americans are eating more omega-6 fatty acids than ever before. In 2008, our caloric intake in omega-6 fatty acids skyrocketed to 11.8% (29 grams/day). That is about 6 times higher than the recommended maximum. And that is where the problem with linoleic acid really lies.
When our body has excess linoleic acid, it gets stored in our cell membranes and adipose (fat) tissue. This stored linoleic acid is connected to human chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.
Given the high content of linoleic acid in sunflower seed oil, we recommend avoiding it altogether just like other seed oils. This includes avoiding cooking with it and consuming it in processed foods. A well rounded diet without seed oils (including sunflower seed oil) will provide more than enough essential linoleic acid.
Sunflower seed oil is highly processed
Another concern of sunflower seed oil is the harsh processing it undergoes. Most sunflower seed oil available in the store has been through an intense process involving: high heat extraction, harsh chemical washing, hexane, bleaching and deodorization. This harsh processing easily breaks down the linoleic acid, because it is a very unstable fatty acid. The toxic byproducts that are created from the breakdown or oxidation of linoleic acid is very concerning. Chemicals or known carcinogens like HNE (one of the by-products for linoleic acid oxidizing) are extremely reactive and have been implicated as an important step in the formation of most chronic diseases and even cancer. It has been linked with obesity, premature aging, cancer, general inflammation, heart disease, metabolic dysfunction, diabetes, strokes, Alzheimers, and others. HNE wreaks havoc in the body. It can be measured in the blood and is now recognized as a stress marker.
You may find cold pressed sunflower seed oil that is minimally processed, and this is definitely better than the highly processed oil. However, even cold-pressed sunflower seed oil still contains a high amount of linoleic acid. Just storing the oil in a clear bottle on the grocery store shelf allows light to oxide the fatty acid and start to break it down into those toxic by-products.
That is why we avoid even a cold pressed, minimally refined, and organic sunflower seed oil. There are many other oils and fats that are healthier alternatives.
What about high oleic sunflower seed oil?
As previously mentioned, another variety of sunflower seed was developed to contain more oleic fatty acid. Oleic acid is a type of monounsaturated fatty acid, and it is more stable than polyunsaturated fatty acids. The oil from this variety of seed is called high oleic sunflower seed oil.
From a fatty acid content, high oleic sunflower seed oil is more stable and less damaging to the body. An organic and cold-pressed unrefined high oleic sunflower seed oil is a better choice than a traditional sunflower seed oil in terms of fatty acid breakdown.
However, because the seed was developed to have a higher amount of oleic oil, we call into question whether it is considered GMO or not. There is literature and opinion to support both arguments. At the end of the day, we try to eat more ancestral and less processed foods, so we choose to avoid any type of sunflower seed oil, including high oleic sunflower seed oil.
So, what’s the best way to eat sunflower seeds?
Eat them whole! While we think high oleic sunflower seed oil is better than conventional sunflower oil, the whole seed is always best.
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A sunflower seed in its whole form will always be our first pick. This is similar to how we think about fruit. We love eating fresh fruit, but we usually avoid drinking fruit juice.
A whole fruit with all of the fiber and structure is perfectly designed for our bodies. When you eat a whole piece of fruit, the sugar is released slowly as your body has to work to free it from the fiber. Fiber is also filling; it keeps our bodies satisfied until the next meal. It can also help reduce cholesterol levels and lower the risk for heart disease. When you drink a cup of juice, the body is flooded with sugar. All that sugar is available at once to be used, rather than the slow release that happens when sugar is paired with fiber. You also end up consuming the equivalent of 6-8 oranges when you drink a cup of juice!
When you eat sunflower oil, you are consuming way more sunflower seeds than you normally would if you were eating the whole seeds. Plus, you’re only getting one part of the seed (its oil) which would normally be paired with the fiber and other nutrients in the seed.
A high oleic sunflower seed oil is better than a traditional sunflower seed oil because it contains far less linoleic acid. However, because high oleic sunflower seed oil is still processed and has not been around for very long (in other words, our ancestors were not eating it), we prefer other oils. In a pinch, a high oleic sunflower seed oil will always trump a traditional sunflower seed oil.
Lastly, a traditional sunflower seed oil is considered a seed oil. We encourage you to work your hardest to eliminate this oil, and other seed oils as best as you can. It is one of the best swaps you can make for you and your family’s health.
What to use instead of sunflower seed oil
There are better processed food items that don’t contain any sunflower seed oil. Look for snacks, condiments, and other foods that do not include seed oils. Making your own at home is a great option too. To start, we have a few awesome recipes on our blog including 5 easy and healthy salad dressings, peanut butter cookies, and chocolate chip cookies,
Additionally, there are healthy fats and oils to cook with instead of high oleic sunflower seed oil like tallow, ghee, butter and unrefined coconut oil. If you want to learn more about swapping out seed oils for healthy fats in your kitchen, check out our book The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding Seed Oils in Your Kitchen! The e-book is available with sliding scale pricing. Use promo code SEEDOILSFREE to get 20% either the paperback or the e-book versions of the book!