Des Moines Register
By Dan Piller
April 12, 2009
What may be the next big thing in the quest for the perfect low-fat french fry will sprout from Iowa ground this summer.
Pioneer Hi-Bred, based in Johnston, will put its new high-oleic soybean through farm tests. The genetically engineered soybean will make an oil that has no artery-clogging trans fats.
The high-oleic oil is supposed to last three to five times longer in commercial fryers than most zero-trans-fat oils now available. If those claims prove true, then McDonald’s, Frito-Lay and other food companies may snap up the oil and promote heart-healthy fried foods and chips.
The consequences could be out of sight – for Americans’ health, for Iowa agriculture and for an Iowa business.
"Zero-trans-fat oils are clearly healthier," said Dr. David Lemon, a Des Moines cardiologist. "The American average diet contains 3 percent trans fats, and the percentage now recommended is 1 percent or less."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required food processors to label foods by the amount of trans fat because medical researchers say trans fats promote bad cholesterol in the bloodstream. That can lead to heart disease.
"Any product that does the job translates into a gain for the population," said Lemon, who has practiced cardiology for 32 years.
Iowa agriculture has a lot at stake in the oil wars, because the state is the nation’s largest producer of soybeans. Farmers could benefit from a biotech soybean with a potentially huge market demand.
The United States consumes 31 billion pounds of oil per year. Up to 40 percent of that oil still is hydrogenated, meaning it is high in trans fats.
"I think it’s a great discovery and will have a huge impact on the soybean oil market," said Walter Fehr, an Iowa State University agronomy professor who started research in 1968 that eventually led to a different type of zero trans-fat soy oil.
"This is an example of what genetic engineering can do," he said.
The FDA has approved the high-oleic soybean. Pioneer hopes to get U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to begin selling the soybean to farmers this fall for planting next year.
"We expect the market to start developing in 2010 and develop gradually until 2015, with a full break by 2018," said John Muenzenberger, Pioneer’s senior business manager.
The proof will come in fast-food kitchens
Most soybean oils require the injection of hydrogen to maintain stability under high heat. The hydrogenation adds trans fats to the oil, however.
The exception is lowlinolenic soybean oil, which was developed from research by Fehr and others. The reduction in linolenic acid, which causes the breakdown of the oil in heat, has produced an oil that can remain stable for two to three hours.
The high-oleic oil would take the next step – with oleic acids blocking the development of destabilizing linolenic acids.
Boosters of high-oleic oil say it will remain stable anywhere from three times to 10 times longer than the low-linolenic oils.
Fast-food and snack makers want frying oils that can hold up under 350-degree heat or more for hours without needing to be replaced.
Food companies are testing the high-oleic oils now, but they guard the results with zeal.
McDonald’s said it would be inappropriate to comment on its tests. Other companies such as Frito-Lay and french fry and tater-tot maker Simplot of Idaho declined to answer questions.
But the cooking oil industry is watching closely.
"We’re very excited about the high-oleic soybean," said Bob Collette of the Shortening and Edible Oils Institute, a Washington, D.C., trade group representing the major oil processors, such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra.
"The high-oleic oil probably would be used most in heavy-duty frying, including french fries," said Collette.
"I am told that commercial testing will provide the definitive answer, but the high-oleic oil is expected to have good potential in this application."
For soybean growers and processors, the high-oleic could help reverse a loss of market share to zero trans fat oils such as olive, sunflower and canola.
Soybean oil once had up to 80 percent of the vegetable oil market. But soybeans have seen their market share drop to 60 percent after the required trans fat labeling generated strong demand for canola, olive and sunflower oils.
"The growth in demand for sunflower and canola and other low-fat oils tells us that the demand will be strong for the high-oleic oil when it becomes commercially available," Collette said.
Years of testing led to breakthrough
The high-oleic genetic trait was developed initially by Pioneer’s parent, DuPont. When DuPont acquired Pioneer in 1999, it charged the Iowa seedmaker with adapting the trait to a soybean that could produce a high-oleic oil.
The intervening decade has been one of relentless experimenting. Pioneer’s researchers, led by senior research manager Steve Schnebly, were challenged to ramp up the typical soybean’s levels of oleic acid, a source of "good" cholesterol, from 25 percent to as much as 80 percent or more.
Schnebly said the problem was that as the oleic acid content increases, it gradually evolves into linolenic acid. That takes the soybean back to its natural high linolenic acid state and renders the bean’s oil vulnerable to heat instability.
"We figured out a way to block the natural lapse of oleic into linolenic acid. That keeps the oil low-lin and also increases the oleic acid, which is what we want," said Schnebly.
The Dysart native holds a Ph.D. in agronomy from Iowa State University.
Schnebly said his eureka moment in the research occurred when early tests on Midwestern fields showed that the high-oleic soybean would produce yields as good as conventional soybeans. Pioneer is, after all, more in the business of selling seeds than oil.
"Farmers are all about yields, and so are we," said Schnebly. "If the yields are good the farmers will grow the beans."
Farmers will get a premium of up to 60 cents per bushel to grow the high-oleic soybeans. That is the customary way new grain traits are introduced into the market.
The extra money is needed because production of a new specialty product like high-oleic soybeans requires storage and shipments that are segregated from the rest of a farmer’s crop.
If successful, Pioneer could increase its current market-leading 23 percent share of the U.S. soybean market. But any advantage Pioneer has in the high-oleic market will likely be short-lived.
Iowa City-based Asoyia has introduced what it calls a "Mid Oleic" soybean oil for testing.
Monsanto, Pioneer’s huge competitor, is taking a different and more time-consuming track: It is combining the high-oleic soybean with its Vistive low-linolenic soybean that it has marketed since 2005.
Spokesman Ben Kampelman said Monsanto "is in phase three of a four-phase development."
A glossary of low-fat terms
SATURATED FAT: Contains triglycerides, found in animal fats and tends to increase LDL, or bad cholesterol.
UNSATURATED FAT: A fat saturated with hydrogen atoms, found more in vegetable oils and tends to lower LDL cholesterol.
MONOUNSATURATED FATS: Fatty acids found in natural foods such as nuts and avocados, canola and olive oil. Demonstrated to lower LDL cholesterol.
TRANS FAT: An unsaturated fat containing trans-isomer fatty acids that are considered promoters of unhealthy cholesterol.
HYDROGENATION: The addition of hydrogen atoms to oil, which convert liquid vegetable oils to solid or semi-solid fats. These are used in baking. The process introduces trans fats into the oil.
LINOLENIC: A fatty acid found in most seed oils, including soybeans. Their presence increases the need for hydrogenation. A low-linolenic oil requires less or no hydrogenation, enabling it to be trans fat free.
OLEIC: A monounsaturated fat found naturally most often in olive and canola oil.