Getting the Trans-Fats Out

In response to the US medical establishment's consensus that "trans-fat" consumption is unhealthy, the US FDA required that manufacturers of conventional foods and some dietary supplements list trans fatty acid (trans fat) content on the Nutrition Facts Panel of their products by January 1, 2006. The US food industry, with the possible exception of the organic food segment, is racing to find ways to get the trans-fats out. Courtesy of a great story in the Wichita Eagle, we are able to outline responses of the agriculture and food processing industries (see below) and offer some scenario insights into how markets could respond. Two key questions to think about: Could a public aversion for trans-fat further accelerate sales of organic (non-processed) food; and, How might widespread planting of new oilseed varieties, especially sunflower hybrids, affect the fuel choices of biodiesel industry? Let's wade in.Fat choice for fried foods centers on two ingredients: linolenic acid (unstable - needs hydrogenation for frying) and oleic acid (stable – does without hydrogenation).
Plant oils naturally high in the desireable, oleic acid are
* palm oil,
* cottonseed oil, and
* corn oil.

Problem: Palm does not yet grow well in Kansas. Other oleic acid rich plant oils are expensive and not available in the quantities needed by food industry. Soybean oil, which has 78 percent of the total oils market, is high in the unstable linolenic acid.

Solutions:
* Promote the planting of oilseed plant varieties that naturally produce oils lower in linolenic acid or higher in oleic acid -- or both.
* Refine the process of hydrogenation to up the ratio of oleic to linolenic acid.

For farmers, the first solution means higher premiums for desirable varieties: true for both organic and commodity oil seed growers.

A new variety of linolenic acid-rich sunflower, NuSun, was developed by traditional plant breeding. Farmers have shifted hundreds of thousands of acres to the new sunflowers. Archer Daniels Midland, has announced a contract program offering a premium to farmers in Kansas and several other states for growing NuSun. All Frito-Lay products made in Canada use NuSun. But in the enormous U.S. market, there's only enough oil for the company's "Natural" line of chips.

Biotech giants DuPont and Monsanto have taken on the search for a healthier soybean. Both have introduced varieties of soybeans lower in linolenic acid. Cargill has also developed a newer hydrogenation process which it claims produces far less trans fat.

So far, most of the improved oil seed varieties have come to market from traditional plant breeding methods, rather than biotechnology. We were wondering if this marked an increased sensitivity to those who prefer their recipes not hinge on advances in genetic modification? On second thought, nah. Probably just a matter of cost and timing. It's a race, and the FDA label rule means that they have to go with the fastest and cheapest route.

From Mansanto's publicity information: "VISTIVE is the brand name for Monsanto's line of soybean oils that help reduce and/or eliminate trans fatty acids (trans fats)"..."Soybean farmers can look forward to receiving preferred access to the best soy oil traits in Monsanto's food trait platform. This puts U.S. soybean producers in the best competitive position today."

We recommend you take the time to read the NuSun link above, for full context. However, if you're pressed for time, here's the money quote: "Oil drives the value of sunflower. It is a high oil content seed of 40% or more...Soybean is an 18% oil content seed. It obtains most of its value from protein. Soybean oil is often a by-product and can, therefore, be sold at a discount without as much pain to the producer. Corn oil is a total by-product of other industries and can also be sold at discounts if required".

NuSun beats all, even king soy, with high oil yield and higher levels of oleic acid. Sunflowers won't make Orangutangs extinct either. Nothing else is similarly positioned to reach commodity status among the US-grown oilseed plants. Hemp would be more comparable to corn oil or soy, because hemp's primary value is for fiber. Supposing, then, that NuSun oil rapidly takes over food-fry market, what other market would take up the displaced byproduct oils of soy and corn? Biodiesel of course.

The shades of green are many. Arguments about biodiesel oil and corn based ethanol production competing for acres for food have to take these ideas into account.