Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) is one of the few crop species that originated in North America (most originated in the fertile crescent, Asia or South or Central America). It was probably a “camp follower” of several of the western native American tribes who domesticated the crop (possibly 1000 BC) and then carried it eastward and southward of North America. The first Europeans observed sunflower cultivated in many places from southern Canada to Mexico.
Sunflower was probably first introduced to Europe through Spain, and spread through Europe as a curiosity until it reached Russia where it was readily adapted. Selection for high oil in Russia began in 1860 and was largely responsible for increasing oil content from 28% to almost 50%. The high-oil lines from Russia were reintroduced into the U.S. after World War II, which rekindled interest in the crop. However, it was the discovery of the male-sterile and restorer gene system that made hybrids feasible and increased commercial interest in the crop. Production of sunflowers subsequently rose dramatically in the Great Plains states as marketers found new niches for the seeds as an oil crop, a birdseed crop, and as a human snack food. Production in these regions in the 1980s has declined mostly because of low prices, but also due to disease, insect and bird problems. Sunflower acreage is now moving westward into dryer regions; however, 85% of the North American sunflower seed is still produced in North and South Dakota and Minnesota.
Some of the health benefits of sunflower oil include its ability to improve heart health, boost energy, strengthen the immune system, improve your skin health, prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, protect against asthma, and reduce inflammation.
The oil accounts for 80% of the value of the sunflower crop, as contrasted with soybean which derives most of its value from the meal. Sunflower oil is generally considered a premium oil because of its light color, high level of unsaturated fatty acids and lack of linolenic acid, bland flavor and high smoke points. The primary fatty acids in the oil are oleic and linoleic (typically 90% unsaturated fatty acids), with the remainder consisting of palmitic and stearic saturated fatty acids. The primary use is as a salad and cooking oil or in margarine. In the USA, sunflower oils account for 8% or less of these markets, but in many sunflower-producing countries, sunflower is the preferred and the most commonly used oil.
High oleic sunflower oil (over 80% oleic acid) was developed commercially in 1985 and has higher oxidated stability than conventional oil. It has expanded the application of sunflower oils for frying purposes, tends to enhance the shelf life of snacks, and could be used as an ingredient in infant formulas requiring stability.
Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant in the body. It has been directly connected to preventing heart disease and boosting your immune system. Furthermore, vitamin E is specifically related to improving skin health and regenerating cells. This means that your skin is better protected against damage from the sun, as well as the natural degradation of age that occurs when free radicals are present in the body. Antioxidants like vitamin E neutralize free radicals, keeping them from destroying or damaging healthy cells. You can see an increased reduction in scars, quicker wound healing, and a healthier natural glow to your skin. This is why sunflower oil is commonly used in cosmetic applications!
The fatty acid content in sunflower oil is also connected to energy levels in the body. Saturated fats can make you feel sluggish, while unsaturated fats, of which sunflower oil has many, can keep you feeling energized and ready to face your day.
As mentioned above, sunflower oil is rich in antioxidants and substances that act as antioxidants. Vitamin E, which has varieties known as tocopherols, are powerful antioxidants that can eliminate free radicals before they can mutate healthy cells into cancerous cells. Specifically, sunflower oil has been linked to preventing colon cancer, but there are a number of research studies ongoing to verify its effects on a wider variety of cancers.
Asthma affects millions of people around the world, and this respiratory condition can range from mild to life-threatening. Sunflower oil has been positively correlated with a lower amount and severity of asthma attacks because of its anti-inflammatory qualities, which are derived from its vitamin content, as well as the beneficial fatty acids sunflower oil contains. Along with asthma, sunflower oil has also been linked to a reduction in severity of arthritis, which is an inflammatory disease.
Sunflower oil has the benefits of antioxidants in the body, but they also have a significant affect on the general immune system and the ability of the body to resist attacks by infection. Sunflower oil protects the skin by strengthening the membrane barriers, thereby making it harder for bacteria and viruses to enter the body. In infants, sunflower oil is highly recommended because it can protect the babies from infections, particularly when they are born premature and are highly susceptible to infections. This same benefit is extended to adults who use the oil as well, although the effects are not quite as dramatic or obvious.