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Extra virgin olive oil vs sunflower oil – which is healthier?

Extra virgin olive oil vs sunflower oil – which is healthier?

Sunflower oil is a commonly used cooking oil, due to its low cost and neutral taste.  But how does it compare to extra virgin olive oil, especially when it comes to the health benefits and stability?  Read on to find out.

Production of sunflower oil compared to extra virgin olive oil

Sunflower oil and extra virgin olive oil are produced using two very different methods – with one oil being refined and the other unrefined. The way the oil is produced can impact both its health benefits and its stability.  Sunflower oil is made from sunflower seeds, and there are quite a few steps involved in this process. In order to extract the oil, the dehulled seeds are first mechanically ground, and then the oil is extracted using high heat and a solvent called hexane1-3.  The oil must then be further refined to make the extracted oil edible. Refining processes can include bleaching, deodorising, degumming and neutralising1-3.  In contrast, extra virgin olive oil is unrefined and is produced through only mechanical methods.  This means the olive fruit is pressed using no chemicals or high heat4. Because extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, the natural antioxidants and polyphenols found in the olive fruit are preserved in the oil.

Fat profile of sunflower oil compared to extra virgin olive oil

Both extra virgin olive oil and sunflower oil are predominately made up of healthy unsaturated fats – but the specific type of unsaturated fats is different in each oil.  Sunflower oil has a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fats (52% vs extra virgin olive oils 8%) and extra virgin olive oil has a higher percentage of monounsaturated fats (65% vs sunflower oils 26%)5.  More specifically, the main fatty acid in extra virgin olive oil is oleic acid, and the main fatty acid in sunflower oil is linoleic acid5.  When looking at saturated fat, sunflower oil has less with just 9%, while extra virgin olive oil has slightly more at 15%5.  Having such a low percentage of saturated fat means sunflower oil is sometimes considered one of the healthiest oils, although only looking at saturated fat means there is no consideration given to the minor components of the oil.  Therefore, while both oils contain a healthy fat profile, which can contribute to the prevention of chronic diseases such as heart disease6, it’s also important to look beyond the fat profile when deciding which oil is superior in terms of health benefits.

Antioxidants in sunflower oil compared to extra virgin olive oil

While the fat profile of an oil plays an important role in health, there are other components that may be even more important. Recent research shows that components such as polyphenols, antioxidants and phytosterols should also be considered when judging oils, as these can have a variety of health benefits7.

The levels of antioxidants and polyphenols in sunflower oil and extra virgin olive oil are very different due to the way they are made as well as the natural differences in the sunflower seed and the olive fruit.  For instance, the chemicals and heat used during the refining of sunflower oil can significantly decrease the levels of antioxidants and other minor components found in the oil8.  On the other hand, extra virgin olive oil is made without chemicals and heat, so most of the antioxidants and minor compounds are retained in the final product.

In fact, a recent paper published in Nutrients journal ranked edible oils based on their nutritional quality and included minor components such as antioxidants and phytosterols.  This paper ranked extra virgin olive oil 1st of the 32 oils tested (i.e. the healthiest oil), and sunflower oil ranked 21st 9.  This difference in ranking was largely due to the differences in levels of minor compounds between the oils.

Stability of sunflower oil compared to extra virgin olive oil

When considering the stability of a cooking oil, many people will jump straight to the smoke point, and look for the oil with the highest value.  Sunflower oil has a high smoke point – so does this make it one of the most stable oils?  The answer is no; research instead now shows that smoke point is NOT a reliable indicator of an oil’s stability, and there are other factors that we should be considering instead10.

Evidence indicates that the fat profile of an oil and the level of antioxidants are what we should be looking out for when considering how stable an oil is during cooking10. Polyunsaturated fats have been shown to be more prone to oxidation, while monounsaturated fats are less likely to break down.  In addition, the more antioxidants present in a cooking oil, the more protected it is from oxidising.  Considering the fat profile and antioxidant content of EVOO compared to sunflower oil, it is clear that EVOO is much more stable to cook with10.

Flavour and versatility of sunflower oil compared to extra virgin olive oil

The flavour of a cooking oil impacts its versatility and is therefore an important consideration when choosing an oil for the kitchen.  Sunflower oil is considered a ‘neutral’ oil as it has no real taste or smell (as these are removed in the refining processes).  It is often used in recipes that call for a ‘neutral oil’ as it doesn’t add any additional flavours to the meal. 

Extra virgin olive oil can have a variety of flavours depending on the variety you choose.  People often think extra virgin olive oil can’t be used in dishes that require a ‘neutral oil’ however this is not the case.  A mild/delicate/light extra virgin olive oil can be used in dishes where you don’t want a strong flavour from the oil, while a robust variety can be used in dishes where you want the flavour to shine through. The different flavour profiles of extra virgin olive oil make it a highly versatile cooking ingredient, as it can be used in anything from salad dressings to baking or frying.

Bottom line

While sunflower oil and extra virgin olive oil both contain healthy fats, they differ greatly in how they are produced, the levels of minor compounds they contain, and how stable they are at high temperatures.  Sunflower oil is refined, and therefore lower in antioxidants, and is less stable due to the high quantity of polyunsaturated fats it contains. On the other hand, extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, with high levels of antioxidants and is one of the most stable oils to cook with – making it the superior oil when compared to sunflower oil.

View article references

  1. ABC Machinery. How is Sunflower Oil Processed? [Internet] ABC Machinery; [cited 2024 Feb 16]. Available from: https://www.abcmach.com/oil-pressing/how-is-sunflower-oil-processed.html
  2. Grainvest Group. How is Sunflower Oil Extracted? [Internet] Grainvest Group; 2020 [cited 2024 Feb 16]. Available from: https://grainvest.co.za/2020/05/11/how-is-sunflower-oil-extracted/
  3. Kumar Metal. A Step-by-Step Guide on How Sunflower Oil is Made. [Internet] Kumar Metal Industries. [cited 2024 Feb 16]. Available from: https://kumarmetal.com/step-by-step-guide-how-sunflower-oil-made/
  4. Australia S. Australian Standards: Olive oils and olive pomace oils. AS 5264- 2011.; 2011.
  5. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Australian Food Composition Database - Release 2.0. Canberra ACT, Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2022
  6. National Heart Foundation of Australia. Dietary Fat and Heart Healthy Eating. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Bundles/For-Professionals/Nutrition-Position-Statements
  7. Teasdale SB et al. How should we judge edible oils and fats? An umbrella review of the health effects of nutrient and bioactive components found in edible oils and fats. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;62(19):5167-5182.
  8. Rhazi, L., F. Depeint, and A. Ayerdi Gotor, Loss in the Intrinsic Quality and the Antioxidant Activity of Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) Oil during an Industrial Refining Process. Molecules, 2022. 27(3).
  9. García-González, A., et al., Virgin Olive Oil Ranks First in a New Nutritional Quality Score Due to Its Compositional Profile. Nutrients, 2023. 15(9).
  10. De Alzaa, F., C. Guillaume, and L. Ravetti, Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating. ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health, 2018. 2(6): p. 2-11.