Sunflower Oil Benefits

Learn about the health benefits of sunflower oil—along with the controversy behind this light oil.


Tithonia rotundifolia 'Del Sol'

Photo by: Mary Beth Shaddix

Mary Beth Shaddix

Unlock the mystery of sunflower oil and understand whether it’s loaded with health benefits—or one of the bad guys in the cooking oil world. Sunflower oil has earned media coverage for its health-promoting properties, and many packaged foods labeled as “good for you” alternatives list sunflower oil in the ingredients list. Are sunflower oil benefits real or just another case of health-food hype? 

Before answering that question, first understand that sunflower oil refers to the oil extracted from sunflower seeds. Typically black oil sunflower seeds are the ones used for producing sunflower oil. These are the same seeds most bird enthusiasts pour into their feeders. The high oil content makes them a favorite among seed-eating birds. 

To grasp sunflower oil benefits, it helps to explore the world of fats. All fats play important roles in maintaining the body’s health. This applies whether the fat origin is animal or plant, or whether it’s saturated or unsaturated. Fats are important to body functions. When it comes to consuming fats, like sunflower oil, the question you want to ask is, “How has the fat been processed?” 

Sunflower oil contains roughly 5 to 15 percent saturated fats and 85 to 95 percent unsaturated fats. Of those unsaturated fats, anywhere from 48 to 74 percent is polyunsaturated. That may just be nutrition double-speak to you, but in a nutshell it means that sunflower oil is inherently very unstable, because that’s a trait of polyunsaturated fats. 

For unstable fats like sunflower oil to be used in packaged foods, they’re most often heated, bleached or altered in some way that damages the molecular structure of the fat and makes it toxic to the human body. It’s still technically safe to consume, but the structural changes cause the oil to become an inflammatory agent in the body. 

If you want to consume sunflower oil, aim for a raw food use and sunflower oil that’s cold pressed. In this fashion, the fats remain stable and bring sunflower oil benefits to bear, like high levels of the antioxidant Vitamin E, which lowers the risk of heart disease and strengthens the immune system. 

Just be aware of what you are consuming, says registered dietitian and author of The Slim Down South Cookbook Carolyn O'Neil, who says sunflower oil is often found in salad dressings, granola bars, mayonnaise, sandwich spreads and sauces. "As with any fat or oil, sunflower oil is high in calories so should be used in moderation. Count 100 calories per tablespoon," says O'Neil.

Before launching into a wholesale immersion into sunflower oil, it’s also important to realize that the polyunsaturated fat content of this oil comes from omega-6 fatty acids. The healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 1:1. The National Institutes of Health says that the average Western diet delivers a ratio of 10:1. According to Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the best way to benefit from sunflower oil’s nutrient-dense composition is to use this oil in moderation.

This is why it’s generally safe to pass on sunflower oil, despite its various health benefits. Definitely avoid consuming it in packaged or prepared food. Unless you’re plying your body with high levels of omega-3s, you may even want to skip consuming any sunflower oil, regardless of how it’s been processed. To be safe, research sunflower oil and discuss this with your doctor, especially if you battle inflammation-based diseases.

Editor's Note: This article is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a professional healthcare provider before trying any form of therapy or if you have any questions or concerns about a medical condition. The use of natural products can be toxic if misused, and even when suitably used, certain individuals could have adverse reactions.

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