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The basics of Sunflower Seeds and Sunflower Oils

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

September 1, 2020

Sunflower was a common crop among American Indian tribes throughout North America about 3000 BC. American Indians used to ground or pounded sunflower seed into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Some tribes mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash, and corn. The sunflower plant and the seeds were widely used in ceremonies, while the seed’s oil was used on the skin and hair.

Sunflower seeds contain 174 calories and 8 grams of protein per ounce. They are an excellent vitamin E source and contain magnesium, potassium, iron, selenium, zinc, and calcium. Sunflower oil is primarily composed of linoleic acid (LA). Linoleic acid is converted to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in the body and rich in omega-3. GLA is found in several plant-based oils, including evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, and black currant seed oil. 

Omega-6 roles include brain function, normal growth and development, stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system. 

Omega-6 benefits

– Diets rich in unsaturated fat diets can lower total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol, and triglycerides, while maintaining beneficial high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. 

– Some studies show that taking gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) for six months or more may reduce nerve pain symptoms in diabetic neuropathy patients. People who have good blood sugar control may find GLA more effective than those with poor blood sugar control. 

– EPO may reduce breast pain and tenderness in people with cyclic mastalgia. 

Omega-6 cons

Omega-6 also has pro-inflammatory effects. Although inflammation is necessary to keep the body in balance, too much inflammation is not. We need to keep a balance in the ratio of omega-6: omega-3 intake to preserve health. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1. 

Studies have found that having a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio increases chronic inflammatory diseases such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The Harvard Medical School suggests to improve the ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats by eating more omega-3s, not fewer omega-6s. I would recommend reducing omega-6 intake and increasing the omega-3 to find a sweet middle point with a healthy ratio. 

So what can I use at home for cooking?

First, I would encourage you to look for cooking methods without (or with minimum) oils. You would be surprised, but you can substitute the oil with water or low sodium chicken broth in some recipes. If using oils, you need to keep in mind that you are already getting too much omega-6 from processed foods and when eating out. Therefore, I prefer using avocado oil for cooking since it has a high smoking point. Although coconut oil has a high smoking point, it is a saturated fat. Here’s our blog with more information about coconut oil. Use coconut oil occasionally for cooking, but not as your primary cooking oil. Then, I would use olive oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil for low heat cooking, as a dressing, or to flavor foods at room temperature. Yes, add the olive oil as the final touch on your dishes or salads, which is pretty much the way it is done in Europe.

Why is sunflower oil used in the food industry?

The food industry uses oils rich in omega-6 to produce most foods. Although more expensive than other oils such as soybean oil, sunflower oil does not require hydrogenation, has no trans-fats, has low monounsaturated fat, and has a neutral taste. It is also more durable than most other vegetable oils when used in industrial frying. 

 Note: Since there is a history of contamination of sunflower seeds with Listeria monocytogenes (in 2016), avoid buying in bulk and prefer buying sunflower seed prepackage. 

The recipe of the week comes via 

Beet and feta salad with sunflower vinaigrette

Salad Ingredients
4–5 fresh small beets, green stems removed

10 cups spinach and spring mix (not packed)

5–6 radishes, thinly sliced

2 scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup crumbled feta

2 Tbsp. sunflower seeds, toasted

Sunflower vinaigrette
1/4 cup sunflower oil

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 tsp. honey

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Salad directions

Place beets (unpeeled) in a small sauce pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook partially covered for 15-20 minutes or until knife tender. Drain and cool completely. Once cooled, peel the beets. Cut lengthwise and then thinly slice.

In a large bowl, combine all salad ingredients, including the beets. Toss with the vinaigrette and serve immediately.

Sunflower vinaigrette directions

Whisk together all ingredients. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately. 

Notes from author: 

Make Ahead: Both the beets and salad vinaigrette can be prepared the night before. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Bring the salad vinaigrette to room temperature before using.

 **Salad tastes the best when super cold. Keep all the ingredients in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can even chill the beets before slicing.***


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