What is sunflower oil? Is it healthy?
Made from sunflower seeds, we have always heard that sunflower oil - often considered a vegetable oil, it is technically not made of vegetables - is good for you, being low in saturated fats and high in vitamin E. (It is also popular in cooking because of its lack of flavour, so it doesn’t affect the flavour of other ingredients.)
But now there is a concern that heating sunflower oil can be bad for you. A new study from the Trust Me, I'm a Doctor team shows that when items are fried in polyunsaturated oils like sunflower oil and corn oil, the result is the production of aldehydes (chemical compounds linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer) at levels 20 times higher than recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Prof Grootveld of De Montfort University in Leicester, who ran the study, tells the BBC, "Sunflower and corn oil are fine, as long as you don't subject them to heat, such as frying or cooking. It's a simple chemical fact that something which is thought to be healthy for us is converted into something that is very unhealthy at standard frying temperatures."
So what is the best substitute for sunflower oil?
There are many alternatives to the commonly used sunflower oil. The best of these is olive oil, which is both easy to find and has the health benefits of a plant oil and the least downside when used in frying. But here is a complete guide to sunflower oil substitutes. (Remember, although all pure oils are gluten free, if this is a concern, always check the label to make sure there are no additives containing gluten.)
- Vegetable Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Canola Oil
- Walnut Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Corn Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Flaxseed Oil
- Avocado Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Olive Oil
1. Vegetable Oil
Usually a blend of grains, plants and seeds, vegetable oils can be used for any kind of heated cooking such as frying or baking. They have a neutral flavour so don’t usually affect the taste of what they are added to.
There is not much to say about sunflower oil vs vegetable oil as vegetable oil can be a mystery mix containing sunflower oil. Check the individual brand's label to see what the mix is and whether it includes large amounts of sunflower oil or corn oil or others that are high in polyunsaturated fats, as they cause those sneaky aldehydes.
To avoid aldehydes, it is best when using vegetable oil to pat fried goods down with kitchen towel, keep the container out of the light (such as in a cupboard) and avoid reusing the oil. These strategies work for most oils to reduce the bad-for-you element.
2. Peanut Oil
Peanuts are not actually related to nuts, they are legumes like peas or beans. The oil made from crushed peanuts is good for frying but might give a strange flavour in baking. Peanut oil is a saturated fat and should be used with caution as it can cause reactions for people with allergies unless it is “refined peanut oil”. Cold pressed peanut oil is supposed to be the healthier version as it retains more of the nutrients. It is commonly used in Asian cooking as the flavour works well.
As a sunflower oil alternative, it is considered healthier because it has high levels of vitamin E, considered to help protect the heart and prevent damage from free radicals. There has also been some research to show that it’s good for insulin control in people with diabetes. But it’s not great for high-heat cooking as it does contain polyunsaturates, it is also high in omega-6 whch western diets contains too much of.
3. Canola Oil (also known as Rapeseed Oil)
This popular oil contains low levels of saturated fats and has little flavour, so is good for baking cakes or cooking in general.
Cold-pressed canola oil produced lower levels of aldehydes than sunflower oil, making it a better sunflower oil alternative for high heat frying.
4. Walnut Oil
A tricky oil to track down, walnut oil is not really for cooking, but better as a dressing for salads. It is good for use in walnut bread though! Walnut oil doesn't last well, so best replaced often.
“I believe strongly that a good nut oil can be one of the nicest and easiest additions to your cooking repertoire,” said Ari Weinzweig, an owner of the famous Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
5. Butter (or lard)
Because of its texture and flavour, butter is often preferred to oil in baking. If you are substituting butter for oil, you need to add a bit more butter than the measurement in the recipe.
But is it good for you? Over the last century there have been many claims that butter can cure all diseases, even tooth decay, but can also can be bad for you. New studies have shown that butter may help with weight-loss. High in saturated fats, it was originally thought to be bad for your heart, but that fact makes butter and its animal fat substitute lard good for high-heat cooking. "If I had a choice," Grootveld says, "between lard and polyunsaturates, I'd use lard every time."
6. Safflower Oil
This oil is very similar to sunflower oil and makes a good substitute for any recipe suggesting sunflower oil. It has little flavour, which makes it useful for baking.
Unfortunately, it has the lowest amount of saturated fats and is high in polyunsaturated fats, which makes for lots of aldehydes. So we guess that makes it not such a great choice, health wise. If using for frying, follow the precautions suggested under vegetable oil.
7. Corn Oil
Corn oil has a nice mild flavour when used in baking. According to Livestrong, it is high in good fats that help with cholesterol and antioxidants.
In the Trust Me, I'm a Doctor study, corn oil produced bad results on the aldehyde test, which means it is not a good sunflower oil substitute for frying. Avoid if possible.
8. Grapeseed Oil
As its name would imply, grapeseed oil is made from the seeds of grapes. Surprisingly, it has a nutty flavour but does not affect the food cooked in it and so is a good oil for frying.
The downside of grapeseed oil, health wise, is that it is high in Omega 6, which while good for us in small amounts is not so good in higher doses, and we tend to consume more Omega 6 than we need, which can increase risk of inflammation and disease.
9. Flaxseed Oil
Coming from the seeds of the flax plant, flaxseed oil is also known as linseed oil. It is good for salad dressings.
As a health benefit, flaxseed oil is good for you as it is higher in Omega 3 which the body needs a regular intake of. It can be useful to help with constipation, which doesn't make it sound that appealing for cooking with! In any case, it is not a heat-stable oil and so should not be used as a sunflower oil alternative for frying.
10. Avocado Oil
Made from pressed avocado pulp, avocado oil has a creamy taste. It can be difficult to track down, but try health food stores.
Avocado oil is good for you because it is high in oleic acid which is a good fat. A study has shown that it can lower blood pressure and when used in salads can help the absorption of carotenoids which are good for eye health. Some say it is the best choice for frying.
11. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a good substitute for sunflower oil, particularly for baking. It takes on a solid form at room temperature so needs to be melted if you need a liquid fat for your recipe. It can also have a strong flavour.
It contains Lauric acid, a good fat. And it is a good choice for frying as it is stable at high temperatures.
12. Olive Oil
One drawback to using olive oil vs sunflower oil is that it can have quite a strong flavour, making it unsuitable for baking or cooking with. If you are going to use olive oil in cooking, choose a light, processed option.
The extra virgin cold-pressed stuff is best used for dressings - or as a dip for fresh crusty bread! Olive oil has long been touted as having health benefits. It is high in anti-oxidant producing vitamin E and MUFAs (monounsaturated fats) which can help with diabetes prevention.
Prof Grootveld says olive oil is the ideal compromise oil as it forms the least aldehydes of the plant-based fats but also has the benefits of plant oils.