Sunflower oil rose to fame as being heart-healthy oil and is being used in many kitchens, restaurants and you will find it listed in abundant packaged products like chips and cookies. But is it really heart-healthy?
Why did the use of sunflower oil and other cooking oils increase?
For decades we have feared saturated fats like butter or coconut oil as being the unhealthy form of fat and so many organizations promoted using vegetable oils instead. And since the amount of saturated fat in sunflower oil is the lowest, it rose to fame as being heart-healthy. But what went unaccounted was the amount of omega-6 fats it contains. Also, the omega-6 and omega-3’s in it are not stable so when heated at a high temperature they can undergo oxidation and become pro-inflammatory.
What are the different types of fats?
To understand if sunflower oil is really heart-healthy let’s talk about different types of fats to make an informed decision.
Fats that are solid at room temperature for e.g. butter, ghee, coconut oil are “Saturated fats”. While on the other end of the spectrum, fats that are liquid at room temperature e.g. cooking oils are “Unsaturated fats”. You would have heard of the terms – Omega-3, 6, and 9. All of them together constitute unsaturated fats.
Unsaturated fats can be classified into:
1. Essential fats: both omega-3 (EPA, ALA, DHA) and omega-6 (Linoleic acid, arachidonic acid) are essential fats and together are called polyunsaturated fats aka PUFA. Essential means that our body cannot make it and we need to consume them from our foods for wellbeing.
2. Non-essential fats: while omega-9 (i.e. oleic acid) which is monounsaturated fats also known as MUFA is something that our body makes and hence is not classified as non-essential.
To summarize, omega-9 is a non-essential fat also known as MUFA while omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fats known as PUFA. But unlike PUFA which can react to heat and light, MUFA is stable when heated. This explains the rise in the use of cooking oils with high MUFA content e.g. canola oil.
What are the sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in our diet?
The sources of omega-6 fats in our diet are nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, meat, and dairy products. While the sources of omega-3 fats in our diet are walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and fish. Remember, as I mentioned earlier both 3’s and 6’s are essential fats and you need to consume them from food. However, it is important to consume plenty of omega-3 fats to maintain a beneficial ratio of healthy fats in our diet.
The ideal ratio of omega-3: omega-6 should be 1:4. But in the western diet, the balance is lost with that ratio being 1:16 or even more. Hence, of late you might have heard of omega-6 being unhealthy. Omega-6 itself is not unhealthy but the skewed ratio is unhealthy and brings a host of diseases like heart disease, obesity, stroke, and high blood pressure.
What to look for on the label if buying sunflower oil?
There are 3 types of sunflower oil:
1. High-oleic sunflower oil (80% omega-9)
2. Mid-oleic sunflower oil (65% omega-9)
3. Linoleic sunflower oil commonly labeled as sunflower oil (70% omega-6)
The most commonly available one is linoleic sunflower oil because that is the cheapest one and hence widely used in restaurants and packaged foods.
There are better options when it comes to cooking oil but still, if you want to purchase sunflower oil look for “high-oleic sunflower oil”. You will know if it is the right one even when you look at the price label because typically high-oleic sunflower oil is 3x the cost.
What happens when you cook sunflower oil at high heat?
The widely available sunflower oil is high in omega-6 which when heated leads to the formation of lipid peroxides which are pro-inflammatory and damaging.
So if you are using sunflower oil, make sure the label says high-oleic sunflower oil. If it does not say that it means the sunflower oil has high omega-6 which is not heart-healthy and could be damaging when heated.