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High-Oleic Sunflower Oil: Is It Heart Healthy?

By Fitoru | 01 November 2019
oleic sunflower seeds in a bowl and sunflower oil in a glass jar

Oleic acid content is what makes avocado oil so healthy to cook with, while the linoleic acid in sunflower oil is usually more appropriate as a topical treatment for skin softening due to its high amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Traditionally refined sunflower oil is on the undesirable list when it comes to healthy oils for cooking, but now there is a new claim, approved by the FDA, that daily consumption of high-oleic sunflower oil may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. What makes high-oleic versions of oils so different from their originals? Does this make sunflower oil healthier to cook with? We have the answers.

Oleic vs. Linoleic Oils

There are two distinct versions of sunflower oil: high-linoleic and high-oleic. High-linoleic sunflower oil is full of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), while high-oleic sunflower oil has more monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). 

Polyunsaturated fat oils are considered better for unheated foods (in a vinaigrette or salad dressing). Monounsaturated fat oils are considered better for cooking at high heat due to their high smoke points. However, it’s the health concerns that matter more to us when it comes to cooking oils, and as a general rule, cold-pressed oils like olive and coconut oil are healthier than highly refined vegetable oils like canola and palm oil. That being said, high-oleic oils are a whole new breed. 

What are High-Oleic Oils?

High-oleic oils have been developed to increase the shelf life of oils high in polyunsaturated fats without using hydrogenation. Hydrogenated oils have earned a notorious reputation because they contain artificially created trans fats, which are detrimental to human health. Once consumers knew to avoid trans fats, the food industry got to work making a type of oil that could reduce rancidity in room temperature packaged foods like cookies, cakes, dried fruit, crackers, cereals, and non-dairy creamers. 

To avoid trans fats, sunflower seeds (and other sources of oil) have been carefully bred to make longer-lasting food products. That means that high-oleic sunflower seed oil made from the Helianthus annuus or hybrid sunflower seed may not be easily found bottled on the grocery store shelf with other frying oils, but you may find it in the ingredients list of packaged products. There are high-oleic versions of:

  • Sunflower oil 
  • Safflower oil 
  • Canola oil 
  • Soybean oil 
  • Olive oil 
  • Algal oil (from algae)

Is High-Oleic Sunflower Oil Healthy?

You may be wondering if these high-oleic-acid oils are healthier versions of edible oils. In one sense, yes they are, because the elimination of trans fats from your diet is incredibly healthy, and just about any change which supports that is beneficial. However, the products that contain high-oleic canola oil or sunflower oil don’t automatically become healthy just because one ingredient has improved. 

Let’s say that a Little Debbie Swiss Roll, which currently still contains partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, switches instead to high-oleic soybean oil: that still leaves it full of sugar, corn syrup, white flour, and cottonseed oil, so in that instance consuming a high-oleic oil isn’t healthy enough to justify the other ingredients.

Still, these high-oleic oils have come to the consumer market in recent years, so now when you’re looking for different types of sunflower oil, you’ll be able to find non-GMO, organic high-oleic sunflower oil available for purchase from specialty and health food stores. Plus, there’s still that FDA confirmation that daily consumption of high-oleic oils may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease

Whether you choose high-oleic sunflower oil for those benefits or a much cleaner and more naturally beneficial option like high-oleic extra virgin olive oil is up to you. The truth remains that high-oleic oils can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, improving your risk factors for heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.

Oleic vs. Linoleic Oils

The Health Benefits of Different Types of Sunflower Oil

There are some good parts of even linoleic sunflower oil, and we’ve highlighted some of those distinctions here.

1. Linoleic Sunflower Oil

The traditional sunflower oil is high in linoleic acid, which is somewhat detrimental to consume because it’s high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s, just like omega-3s, are essential fatty acids that we do need in our diet, but partially because of refined vegetable oils being in too many of our food products, and omega-3 foods like oily fish and nuts being often too low, we can have as high as a 50:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid levels, when the balance should be as close as possible to 1:1.

So, while linoleic acid belongs in the human diet, it’s already way too overabundant. Does that mean there’s no use at all for linoleic sunflower oil? No, because it can still be used to help treat and soften your skin.

  • Antioxidant content: Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that can protect you from the free radical damage caused by direct sunlight (which advances wrinkles and premature aging).
  • Protection barrier: Linoleic acid specifically helps the skin maintain moisture and creates a barrier against environmental pollutants. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect that can benefit dry-skin conditions like eczema, sometimes with benefits even higher than those of olive oil.
  • Wound healing: The relevant scientific results here are from an animal study on lambs, but it nevertheless reveals the potential for sunflower oil to more quickly heal open wounds.

Sunflower oil is non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores and is non-irritating even to the skin of premature infants and those with abnormally oily, dry, or acne-prone skin. In recent years, linoleic sunflower oil has gone down greatly in production thanks to the invention of more preferable high-oleic sunflower oil, but it still has its beneficial uses.

2. Mid-Oleic Sunflower Oil

This is the most common type of sunflower oil available in North America, a middle-of-the-road option that is the one most likely to be found on retail shelves. It’s considered the standard because it’s competitive in price with other cooking oils.

At about 65% oleic acid and 25% linoleic acid, it’s less likely to suffer from rancidity than high-linoleic oil, but it still has enough linoleic acid to make it useful as a skin treatment. 

3. High-Oleic Sunflower Oil

With 80% oleic acid or more, high-oleic sunflower oil still contains saturated and polyunsaturated fats (linoleic oil), but both of them are equal in measure in that remaining 20%. Stable without hydrogenation and able to be stored safely long term, it’s also the edible oil option most beneficial for your health.

Adding monounsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid to your diet is more possible than ever now that high-oleic oils are being developed and made available. It’s been proven to improve your cholesterol levels and your heart health. Ideal for frying thanks to its neutral taste and stability, you can even get this oil expeller-pressed instead of made through solvent extraction, which makes it more natural than ever, as expeller pressing means it’s made much the same way coconut and olive oils are made, by literally squeezing the oil out with an intense pressure.

High-Quality, High-Oleic Oil

It turns out that so-called problematic oils are more a product of their manufacture than any inherently harmful ingredients. Linoleic oil isn’t by nature bad, it’s just too abundant in our modern diets, and while trans fats are, of course, bad, hydrogenation was originally intended to increase stability, not to contribute to consumer ill health. 

Now that the danger of trans fats has been identified, manufacturers have found better ways to stabilize cooking oils, ways that actually improve heart health. For that reason expeller-pressed high-oleic sunflower oil may be a healthy oil for you.

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