Stocking up sunflower oil in your kitchen is a good option

Excess of anything is harmful. The omega-6 fatty acids found in the sunflower oil have important benefits for heart health, which makes it a good alternative to the more expensive oils in typical Indian cooking.

Some background first. Omega-6 fatty acids are a kind of Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFA).The body needs PUFA but cannot make it, which makes dietary intake essential. Around 90 percent of the dietary omega-6 PUFA is Linoleic acid (LA). Nuts and cooking oils such as sunflower oil are excellent sources of LA. The American Heart Association recommends that people take at least 5 - 10 percent of their daily calories from omega-6 fatty acids.

Dietary PUFA helps lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and triglyceride levels, and slightly lowers HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels. MUFA, found in olive oil and canola oil, has the additional marginal benefit of maintaining HDL levels.

All good so far. So where did the idea that omega-6 fatty acids can be harmful come from? It probably arose from a superficial reading of a debate in nutrition research, which studied the link between omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation and higher cardiovascular risk- given that arachidonic acid (AA), an inflammatory molecule, arises from LA in the body. However, in a scientific advisory published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), 2009;119;902-907, the AHA, after reviewing dozens of studies on the subject, makes it clear that such fears are unjustified.

It turns out that AA and LA also give rise to anti-inflammatory molecules. The anti-inflammatory effects predominate, combating atherosclerosis and lowering cardiovascular risk. According to the advisory, taking recommended amounts of omega-6 PUFAs lowers cardiovascular risk compared to lower intakes. It goes on to assure that higher intakes of omega-6 “appear to be safe and may be even more beneficial (as part of a low–saturated-fat, low-cholesterol diet)”. Lowering intake below the recommend amount may actually increase cardiovascular risk.

All in all, a big thumbs-up to the Indian homemaker using sunflower oil.

(The writer is specialist in Internal Medicine)