Sunflowers are native to North and Central America, from which the most popular oil in the world is extracted. In Central European cuisine, this oil has become indispensable and is part of many traditional recipes. It is extracted from sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus). The flower was venerated by American Indian tribes, particularly by the Incas and there are still wild forms of sunflower in Peru and Mexico.
Sunflower oil arrives in Europe
In the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish sailors were so impressed by the beauty of sunflowers that they imported their seeds to Europe. For a long time it was cultivated only as an ornamental plant. Since then, the sunflower has been an artistic element in world-famous paintings, such as those of the genius Vincent van Gogh. As a decorative plant, it remained in Europe for almost a century until ingenious bakers of the 17th century first used sunflower seeds in its bakeries as a spice. Even so, it would take another two centuries to be used as a source of oil.
First sunflower oil extraction
It is said that the Russian farmer Dmitry Bokarev, back in 1829, had noticed that birds liked to eat ripe sunflower grains, because of their high fat content, so he thought of pressing them to extract their oil. Indeed, he extracted a tasty oil, and decided to grow sunflowers to extract his oil on a larger scale. In a few years, the fields around his hometown of Alexowka were dyed an intense yellow color, and an oil mill dedicated solely to the extraction of sunflower oil was quickly built.
In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church approved this oil as food for believers during Lent, who were forbidden to consume meat and animal fat. From here, the world triumphant expansion of sunflower oil was unstoppable, especially for its neutral taste, which makes possible the wide variety of uses, and its richness in vitamins and unsaturated fatty acids.
Main growing areas of sunflowers
Today, the main growing areas are found in Ukraine, Russia, China, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the United States and Argentina. The sunflower plant needs a soil rich in potassium and boron, mild temperatures and plenty of water. One hectare can produce about a thousand liters of sunflower oil.
Extraction of sunflower oil
Sunflower seeds have an oil content of between 40% and 65%. The usual technique is that of cold pressing. During this process (<40º), the oil seed is not heated, but is mechanically pressed carefully. In this way, the oil obtained already only needs to be filtered and bottled. Cold pressing is essential to preserve all natural components and flavors. These cold-pressed oils are not suitable for frying, since the fat-soluble vitamins are destroyed. Also their life is short, so they must be consumed quickly.
On the other hand, if the pressing process is hot, a long service life up to two years is guaranteed in a closed container. This process is also much more productive but destroys the valuable components. However, these oils are excellent for steaming, baking, cooking and frying, where the sunflower oil reaches its smoking point of approximately 180º. Finally, thanks to its odor neutrality, this hot-pressed sunflower oil is also very suitable for cosmetic use as a base for massage oils or other personal hygiene products.
These important differences between cold and hot extraction are given in an equivalent way in olive oil.
Composition of sunflower oil
Sunflower oil is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (olive in monounsaturated acids), with 65 percent. Its content of linoleic acid is between 50% and 75%. As regards its acidity, or proportion of free fatty acids, it is only 1.8%, comparable to that of virgin olive oils (extra virgin olive oil – EVOO – should be below 0, 8th).
It also already contains to a lesser extent other relevant fatty acids such as palmitic acid, stearic acid and palmitic acid. The vitamin E content is surprisingly high when it has been extracted cold, in addition to vitamins A, B, D and K.
Benefits of sunflower oil
Cold pressed sunflower oil helps reduce cholesterol levels, like olive oil, so it has preventive effects against atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. It also promotes intestinal activity, and due to its high content of vitamin E, acts as an antioxidant against premature cellular aging