Canola oil and sunflower oil are both known for being mildly flavored, relatively healthy cooking oils with high smoke points. The smoke point is the temperature at which a heated cooking oil begins to burn, which means that it will generate smoke and toxic compounds. Because of the high smoke points, they both appear to be ideal for high-temperature cooking, but this is not necessarily the case. Let’s take a look at how canola oil and sunflower oil compare to each other in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does canola oil differ from sunflower oil?
Canola oil comes from the canola seeds produced by the canola plant, which is a specially bred variety of rapeseed. The canola plant was bred to eliminate flavor problems and toxic compounds found in regular rapeseed plants. Sunflower oil comes from sunflower seeds and the sunflower plant.
Canola oil and sunflower oil differ significantly when it comes to their effects on health, which has a lot to do with the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. When they are consumed in moderation, omega-6 fatty acids are essential for health; however, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is important. The lower the ratio, the better for reducing inflammation. A healthy ratio would be 4:1. In canola oil, the ratio is 2:1; in sunflower oil, that ratio is 40:1. Too much omega-6 fatty acids in the diet can lead to inflammation and related health problems.
Another issue has to do with the generation of compounds called aldehydes. Aldehydes are associated with heart disease and cancer. Sunflower oil generates aldehydes at relatively low temperatures. It starts releasing them at about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This is important since sunflower oil is often used at high temperatures because of its relatively high smoke point.
Canola oil remains relatively safe even at medium-high temperatures. The high-oleic version of sunflower oil is believed to be safer to use in cooking. It has 80 percent oleic acid compared to the regular version that only contains 20 percent.
Canola oil is usually a lot cheaper than sunflower oil. Refined canola oil is usually one of the least expensive cooking oils.
Canola and sunflower oils also differ in terms of the type of vitamin E they contain. Both are known to be good sources of the antioxidant vitamin, but they contain different types. Canola oil has the gamma-tocopherol type, which is believed to negatively affect lung function, while sunflower oil contains the alpha-tocopherol form that boosts lung health.
Can you use canola oil as a substitute for sunflower oil and vice versa?
Refined canola oil has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point without producing harmful compounds. It is an excellent substitute for sunflower oil in almost all applications but especially in ones that involve high-heat cooking techniques.
Sunflower oil does produce harmful compounds at low temperatures despite its high smoke point. As a result, it is not a good substitute for canola oil except in uncooked applications.
When should you use canola oil, and when should you use sunflower oil?
Use canola oil for deep-frying, stir-fried dishes, and any other application where its mild flavor and high smoke point will be useful. It is also considered one of the best oils to use in baked goods. Reserve sunflower oil for vinaigrettes and other sauces that will not be exposed to heat and where you need its almost-neutral flavor profile.