Sunflower oil: are there alternatives if the supply fails?

Sunflower oil is very versatile: it is used in homes and the food industry, but it also has other applications, such as the manufacture of paints, pesticides and lacquers. But the invasion of Ukraine is having a great impact on its availability and it is necessary to look for alternatives

Monica Venegas Caleron Senior Scientist specializing in oil crop biotechnology., Instituto de la Grasa (IG - CSIC) RAFAEL GARCES MANCHEÑO Research professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Plant Products, Institute of Fat (IG - CSIC)

The shelves in the cooking oil section of the supermarket are almost empty lately. The current unstable situation due to the invasion of Ukraine is having a major impact on the sunflower oil market. The conflict highlights the dependence of the European Union (EU) on the agriculture of non-EU nations.

Ukraine is one of the world's leading producers of sunflower seeds, along with Russia and Argentina. The EU is a net importer of its oil. The vast majority of sunflower oil is imported from Ukraine (86%), Serbia (5%), Moldova (3%) and others (6%). That is why there are fears for the stock of this product.

Properties and uses of sunflower oil

Sunflower oil has a mild flavor, a high content of unsaturated fatty acids and α-tocopherol (vitamin E), in addition to other beneficial components, such as folic acid or selenium. It is rich in linoleic acid, an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid that is essential in our diet because the body cannot synthesize it and therefore must obtain it from food.

In addition, there are new sunflower lines with a modified fatty acid composition that improves their stability. Some of the most popular are the high oleic sunflower mutant lines that contain the same nutrients and vitamins as regular sunflower, but higher levels of oleic acid, even more so than olive oil.

The higher content of oleic acid makes this oil quite interesting both for its beneficial properties for health and at a technical level. It is more stable against oxidation than most seed oils used for frying and during storage. For all these reasons, sunflower oil is a very good option in terms of nutritional quality and functionality for the food industry.

It is a very versatile oil. It is not only used for direct consumption, it is also used for the production of margarine and spreads, as well as fats for frying. In addition, it is used in other applications such as preserves, dressings and mayonnaise.

Due to its high content of linoleic acid, it is included in infant formulas and in pet food. Sunflower oil is also suitable for industrial purposes. It is used in oil-based paints, as well as for the production of lacquers, copolymers, pesticides, resins, and biofuels. Of course, its cost has always placed it at an advantage over other oils. However, in a situation like the current one, it is necessary to look for an alternative for each of these applications.

healthy fats

All oils are made up of three different types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Each oil is classified according to the type of major fatty acid. For example, palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils are predominantly saturated. While olive and canola oils are considered monounsaturated. As an example of polyunsaturated, we have sunflower, corn and soybean oils.

In general, according to scientific evidence, a healthy diet should have a low content of saturated fats (products of animal origin such as butter or palm fat) and trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in the preparation of certain foods ) due to negative health effects.

The greatest health benefits arise from replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Both polyunsaturated (fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and seed oils such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, and corn) and monounsaturated (avocado, peanut, olive, or canola oil) help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. ») and triglycerides in the blood, with a protective effect against arteriosclerosis.

Alternatives to sunflower oil

There is a wide range of vegetable oils. The most common are safflower, canola, soybean, corn, olive and cotton oils, but other oils such as flax, sesame, peanut, avocado, coconut, grape or almond are also available in food.

The choice of oil for food will depend on many factors, such as availability, price, flavor and, mainly, its behavior during cooking and the stability of the product during storage.

In general, for regular direct consumption, cooking or baking, it is desirable to use crude oils with a high content of unsaturated, as well as vitamins and antioxidant compounds such as extra virgin olive oil, and oils with high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as corn, sunflower, soybean, canola and peanut oil. The intake of these oils should be combined with other oils with a high content of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as flax or sesame.

However, high-temperature fried and baked foods require oxidation-resistant oils. Oxidative reactions give rise to the formation of new compounds that produce undesirable flavors and aromas, compromising the nutritional quality of the oils. Oil oxidation is accelerated by high temperatures during frying. Therefore, its stability is especially important for this application.

Before switching from one oil to another, it is necessary to examine the alternatives avoiding the use of unhealthy fats, such as saturated (animal and tropical fats) or trans (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils), and choose oils with a high content of oleic acid, because these monounsaturated fats are more stable than polyunsaturated ones.

Conventional cooking oils do not usually meet this requirement. Extra virgin olive oil is not suitable for cooking at high temperatures. It has a relatively low smoke point, due to minor components, which are otherwise beneficial at low temperatures. That is why it is better for raw food or for cooking over low and medium heat.

For frying, the use of refined oils is more appropriate, such as olive, pomace, canola, almond or avocado. These help counteract the generation of oxidation compounds during fry cooking.

This article has been published in 'The Conversation'.

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