A federal directive to eliminate trans fats from foods may be just what the doctor ordered – not only for public health, but also for the biotechnology industry. High oleic soybeans, introduced four years ago, represent the first soybean trait genetically engineered to directly benefit consumers.
Most of the biotech crops introduced in the past two decades have been aimed at helping farmers control pests such as weeds and insects. Although such crops have environmental benefits such as reduced total pesticide and fuel used and less soil compaction, they've been a hard sell to some consumers.
After beginning in limited areas of Ohio in 2011, farmers now grow high oleic soybeans in nine states, including Michigan. Competitive performance, demand for enhanced soybean oil and opportunities for a price premium equate to increasing acreage each year.
In 2013, through the national soybean checkoff, the United Soybean Board partnered with seed companies on a five-year plan to advance soybean varieties that produce high oleic soybean oil. Both Monsanto Asgrow's Vistive Gold soybeans and DuPont Pioneer's Plenish soybeans are engineered to "dial down" the expression of targeted genes in a plant, a process that scientists liken to a light-switch dimmer.
"High oleic soybeans are a great solution to address concerns surrounding trans fat and saturated fat," said Sarah Vacek, Monsanto's Vistive Gold product manager. "The soybeans deliver an innovative oil option that also provides the same great taste and texture that people expect from traditional oils."
The trouble with trans fats
Trans fats, also known as trans-unsaturated fatty acids or trans fatty acids, are a type of unsaturated fats uncommon in nature but commonly produced from partially hydrogenated vegetable fats used in margarine, snack foods, packaged baked goods and frying fast food since the 1950s. Hydrogenation gives oil a longer shelf life, increases oxidative stability and makes it solid at room temperature. But recent research shows that trans fats negatively affect human health, and concerns about trans fats have mounted.
United States and the European Union have long required labels declaring the fat content of foods in retail trade. More recently, they have required labeling the trans fat content. Since 2006, U.S. food manufacturers have been required to include trans fat content on nutrition facts labels.
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed removing the "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) status from partially hydrogenated oils (which contain trans fats) for use in human food.
On June 16 of this year, the FDA finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not GRAS. Food manufacturers have three years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products.
The use of trans fats in human food products has been effectively banned in Denmark and Switzerland. In the United States, local legislation banned trans fats from restaurants and public kitchens in New York City and California.
How the FDA ruling affects soybean farmers
The United Soybean Board (USB) estimates that the soybean industry has lost 4 billion pounds of annual soybean oil demand since the trans fat labeling law went into effect in 2006. That translates to a market loss of 359 million bushels of soybeans. The USB estimates that an additional 2 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated soybean oil are used in food today.
The American Soybean Association said the move to remove the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils could cost soybean farmers up to $1.6 billion a year in lost demand.
Soybean farmers poised to solve the trans fat problem
For more than a decade, the United Soybean Board has been working with the industry on solutions to help food companies reduce or eliminate trans fats while using domestically produced, sustainable soybean oil. High oleic soybeans are a production choice. Interesterification of commodity soybean oil provides a processing alternative.
A third solution, substituting saturated fats such as lard or palm oil, is not a healthy alternative. A 2006 study supported by the National Institutes of Health and the USDA Agricultural Research Service concluded that palm oil is not a safe substitute because it results in adverse changes in the blood, just as trans fat does.
High oleic soybeans can help soybean farmers reclaim the 4 billion pounds of demand lost to other oils.
With no need for hydrogenation, high oleic soybean oil helps food companies improve their products' nutrition profiles. Unlike any other cooking oil, it meets dietary recommen?dations while allowing consumers to enjoy the foods they love.
High oleic soybeans provide:
• increased functionality.
• zero trans fat.
• the highest amount of heart-healthy mono?unsaturated fats (oleic acid) available in soybeans under commercial development, 72-80%, similar to that found in olive oil and three times the oleic acid of commodity soybeans.
• 20-60% less saturated fat than commodity soybean oil and 70-75% less than palm oil, without sacrificing flavor.
• linolenic content of less than 3% (versus 7% for commodity soybean oil) for greater oil stability.
One serving of high oleic soybean oil (14 g total fat) contains 1 g saturated fat and 0 g trans fat. The 1 g per serving of saturated fat compares to 7 g per serving in palm oil, 2.5 g per serving in fry shortening and 2.0 g per serving in conventional soybean oil.
The future of high oleic soybeans
Both Pioneer and Monsanto sell high oleic soybean seed in Michigan. The full commercial release of the two high oleic traits on the market has been delayed as companies wait for international import approvals.
Pioneer's Plenish is grown in nine states, including Michigan. Acreage is limited while awaiting European Union approval for accepting imports.
Vistive Gold, built on Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield technology, is grown only in Michigan while awaiting global regulatory approvals, specifically from China and the European Union. A stewardship premium is available until Vistive Gold receives import approvals in key export markets with functioning regulatory systems.
The industry expects high oleic soybeans to receive full global regulatory approval in early 2016, opening the door for expansion.
The soybean industry's goal is for farmers to plant 18 million acres of high oleic soybeans by 2023 to meet 9 billion pounds of food, industrial and export demand. Through its funding to help accelerate high oleic breeding and promotion to the food industry, the national soybean checkoff is on track to make the goal a reality.
How farmers can grow high oleic soybeans
Farmers can start with using a calculator at SoyInnovation.com (click Map Your Opportunity at the top). The tool helps farmers see the availability of high oleic soybeans and determine whether growing them makes sense economically. Provided by the United Soybean Board, the calculator takes into account the costs of handling and segregating identity preserved soybeans, as well as potential added profits.
High oleic soybean oil will be identity preserved (IP) from seed production through refined oil delivered to end users. The value at each stage of the supply chain is directly related to the ability to keep high oleic soybean oil separate from commodity soybean and other vegetable oils.
That's why high oleic soybeans are grown under IP contracts. Processors pay growers an incentive for producing and delivering high oleic IP soybeans. To preserve identity and maintain purity, farmers need to clean seed hoppers before planting high oleic varieties, mark where the varieties are planted, clean the combine before and after harvesting their high oleic variety, and clean storage bins, trucks and wagons before handling high oleic soybeans.
The United Soybean Board expects more than 1,000 growers to plant up to 350,000 acres of high oleic soy?beans this year. Pioneer helps arrange contracts for their growers with participating processors. ADM's Frankfort, Indiana, plant contracts acreage in Michigan with delivery to Ottawa Lake, Michigan. Vistive Gold growers in Michigan send their beans to Zeeland Farm Services in Zeeland, Michigan.
For now, Monsanto and Pioneer's high oleic traits are available in maturity groups II to IV, which limits the number of growers capable of growing them nationwide. The United Soybean Board is working with both companies to expand their respective traits into more maturity groups.
For the same reason the food industry wants the oil – high-heat stability – industrial markets are taking another look at U.S. soy. High oleic soybeans are a nontoxic renewable resource for biosynthetic industrial oils. There are opportunities for high oleic soybean oil to replace petroleum in synthetic motor oils, automotive lubricants and even cosmetics.
That makes the oil more marketable, which is good news for farmers. Andy Welden, a soybean farmer from Jonesville and president of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, said, "Multiple uses of high oleic oil create greater demand for American soybean farmers and make our products more competitive in the world market."
Gregg Troub, a soybean grower from Carson City, Michigan, said "I believe farmers and the industry will benefit from these soybeans as a specialty crop. The premium is enticing, especially knowing they perform well even in a challenging growing season."
The Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee manages soybean checkoff funds to increase return on investment for Michigan soybean farmers while enhancing sustainable soybean production. A board of farmer leaders directs MSPC on behalf of the more than 12,000 Michigan soybean farmers. For information about soybean checkoff results, call 989.652.3294 or visit www.michigansoybean.org.