Description & Cultivation
The sunflower is an annual crop belonging to the family Compositae. From the small seed grows a thick, pithy, rigid stem with large, heart-shaped leaves. The stem grows to a height of 2-4 m, the inflorescence having a diameter of 15-50 com. The wedge-shaped receptacle bears the sexless edge and tongue flowers from which the fruits, up to 2000 sunflower seeds, develop.
The fruits consist of shells and seeds, which are nut-like and called shell fruits. Seed shell and fruit shell are fused together. There are large, small and oblong seeds which, depending on variety, may be black, dark brown, grey-brown, beige or striped. So far, some 55 different varieties have been identified. As soon as the undersides of the flower clusters turn yellow and the first seeds are shed the harvest begins, either by hand or with the aid of combines.
Like potatoes and maize, the sunflower comes from tropical Central and South America and was taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Sunflower became very popular as a cultivated plant in the 18th century.
The sunflower needs sunny and very warm summer months with very dry conditions during the ripening of the seeds. Russia is the biggest sunflower producer, followed by the Eastern European countries, Argentina and the European Union.
6.9 million tonnes of sunflower seeds are produced in the EU and 0.3 million are imported. The main exporters of sunflower seed oil are Argentina, the US and Eastern Europe. The EU crushes 6 million tonnes of sunflower seeds.
Sunflower oil and meal
The fat content of ripe sunflower seeds fluctuates between 30 and 45 %. Pressing and extraction are the methods normally used to derive the oil. Sunflower meal is used for animal feed. Limited amounts of sunflower lecithin are used as food emulsifiers.
Sunflower oil is generally considered a premium oil because of its high level of unsaturated fatty acids (typically 90% of oleic and linoleic acids) and lack of linoleic acid. It is best suited for use at low temperatures e.g. in sauces, dressings, margarines or as a salad oil.