Sunflower Oil: From Native Americans Via Russia

Sunflower oil comes from sunflower seeds that are native to North America. Native Americans were the first to use the plant, and historians believe that they domesticated the sunflower before domesticating corn. There is evidence that Native American tribes cultivated sunflowers in Arizona and New Mexico around 3000 BCE. The Native Americans were also the first to extract the oil that they used in many ways that included making bread.

When the Europeans first came to America, they took the plant back with them to be grown as an ornamental plant. Its value for cooking and medicine would become widely known by the 1800s

Sunflower oil would be commercially produced in 19th century Russia. According to legend, the sunflowers made their way to Russia via Peter the Great, who saw the plants growing in Amsterdam and was fascinated by them. From the 19th century on, sunflower oil became a widely used cooking oil in Eastern Europe. There were two sunflower varieties at this time: one for oil and one for direct consumption of the seed.

Sunflower oil made its way from Russia back to North America via Russian immigrants. The first commercial processing of sunflower seed into oil in the US began in the early 20th century.

Canada began its breeding program for sunflower seeds in 1930, and the oil became very popular, leading to widespread cultivation. Sunflower seed farming quickly spread from Canada into North Dakota and Minnesota.

Sunflower oil flavor profile

Sunflower oil has a mild, almost neutral flavor that makes it versatile enough to be used with a lot of different foods. It does not have much of a flavor to impart into foods, so it is regarded as an unobtrusive oil.

Health benefits of sunflower oil

Sunflower has a reputation as a healthy oil, and it is to an extent. Its health benefits result from compounds like:

  • Vitamins: Sunflower oil is a good source of vitamins E and K.
  • Oleic acid: Different sunflower oils have different levels of oleic acid. High oleic sunflower oils are considered the healthiest of all because they contain more omega-3 fatty acids and less of the potentially dangerous omega-6 fatty acids. Sunflower oil with low levels of oleic acid could cause an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet.

With sunflower oil in your diet, you may be able to keep yourself from developing certain health conditions like:

  • Heart disease: Phytochemicals like choline and phenolic acid are good for heart health. Both are found in sunflower oil. Also important is the fact that sunflower oil is a good source of monounsaturated fatty acids.
  • Poor immune system: The vitamin E in sunflower oil can enhance your immune system.

Health concerns

Because sunflower oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, it can cause inflammation and the health problems that often arise from it. Studies have also found that despite its high smoke point, sunflower oil releases more aldehydes than other oils derived from plants. The longer it is heated, the more aldehydes it produces. Aldehydes are associated with cancer and other serious illnesses.

Common uses

Unless it is cold-pressed, sunflower oil has a high smoke point (well over 400 degrees Fahrenheit); however, its tendency to produce aldehydes means that you may not want to cook with it at those temperatures. Use it for raw and low-heat preparations like salad dressings and poaching.