Sunflower oil is produced from the seeds of sunflower, a tall plant known for its showy flowers. Sunflower seeds are rich in protein and yield a high quality vegetable oil used in making margarine and cooking oil. Sunflower oil has a light taste, is suitable for frying and has some health benefits.
Sunflowers originated in North America and were then introduced into Europe. They are believed to have been grown first in Mexico by the native Indians as far back as 3000 B.C. The seeds were ground or pounded and used in flour for bread making. Spanish explorers introduced this exotic plant into Europe around middle of sixteenth century. Still, it was greatly used for ornamental purpose, until it was cultivated by the Russians for oil.
The Russians cultivated sunflowers for its oil in the middle of the eighteenth century, and production on a commercial basis started only in the nineteenth century. Two varieties were grown, the oil yielding type, and another one for direct consumption. Sunflower seeds were taken back to America around this time, where new, high yielding hybrids were grown. In the 1950’s, sunflower oil was popularized as an important vegetable oil all around the world. Sunflower oil is very popular in Europe and it is the third most important vegetable oil of the world.
The first step in extracting oil from sunflower seeds is the preparation of the raw material. This is done to clean and remove husk for further processing. The seeds are then pressed to extract oil. Pressing can be mechanical, at a small scale with oil press, or at commercial level with power driven, bigger machines. One has to be careful during pressing, so as not to generate heat, as high temperatures affect the quality of oil.
After extraction, the oil is clarified to remove contaminants like water and resins. Sometimes the oil is allowed to stand so that the impurities settle down, and oil from top is poured off. The oil can also be filtered. Then, the cleaned and clarified oil is packaged in plastic or glass containers. Colored containers are desirable as they protect the oil from sunlight. Oil should be kept away from heat and sunlight to increase the shelf life.
Sunflower oil is especially suitable for frying, as it does not smoke even at high temperatures. It can also be used for shallow frying and as salad dressing, as it has a light texture and taste.
One important non food use of sunflower oil is use as an ingredient in skin care products, as it is easily absorbed by the skin. Its use ranges from use in lotions and creams to soaps, because of its light texture. Also, the high linoleic acid content favors its use in soaps, as this gives it a skin softening quality.
 Health Benefits
Sunflower oil is a combination of polyunsaturated (PUFA), monounsaturated (MUFA) and saturated fats. It has a high content of PUFA and a low level of saturated fats, which makes it a healthier option than saturated fats. PUFA are a source of essential fatty acids (EFA), which are required for a number of functions in the body. It also contains vitamins A, D, and E which are of great nutritional value.
Newer varieties of sunflower oil have been developed which have greater health benefits. The high oleic sunflower oil is considered healthier than the high linoleic acid sunflower oil. High oleic acid oil has more of monounsaturated fats, which makes it comparable to olive oil. This has been shown to lower cholesterol, and is considered desirable for a healthy heart condition.
The high linoleic acid variety of sunflower oil has a higher content of PUFA. Though PUFA is low in trans fat, it is susceptible to oxidative damage, which gives rise to free radicals. These free radicals attack the cell membranes and cause premature aging. Thus, a correct balance between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, so as to provide both, stability and health benefits, is most desirable.