Bismarck, N. D. — Shoulder-high, vivid golden heads arching toward the sun, sunflowers were once revered by the Aztecs as a symbol of the sun itself. Nowadays, it’s not the sunny hue that conjures up visions of gold for producers — it’s the oil.

About 40,000 acres of oil sunflowers were planted in Minnesota this year. Nearly half were planted to “NuSun” varieties, which yield a light, amber oil that could be the next heavy hitter for the sunflower industry.

“We want to show that NuSunTM oil is comparable to and as healthful as olive oil,” says Ruth Isaak, communications director for the National Sunflower Association, based in Bismarck, N.D.

Low in saturated fat, NuSun is a monounsaturated oil containing linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid. Since it does not need hydrogenation to remain shelf-stable, it is free of trans fatty acids.

A human diet study, supported by AURI, is underway at Penn State University. That research is expected to support health claims made for NuSun, although final results will not be available until later this fall.

“We’re looking at common markers like cholesterol, LDL, HDL — also oxidation levels,” Isaak says. “All of the subjects, even those not consuming NuSun, are eating healthy diets because we didn’t want to slant the results.” The 32 participants will finish the diet portion of the study by the end of October.

The National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine now warns that people should reduce their intake of trans fatty acids to protect against heart disease. An Institute panel says there is no safe level of trans fats in the diet. The FDA is expected to issue trans fat labeling regulations by this fall or early next spring. The National Sunflower Association expects the labeling to heighten both consumer and manufacturer interest in healthier oils.

Not everyone is waiting for the results of a diet study or FDA regulations before embracing NuSun. Its fat profile and cooking performance are already attractive to snack companies. Frito-Lay is test marketing seven snack items cooked in NuSun oil; Procter and Gamble uses NuSun in its Pringles and Torrengos snacks. Barrel O’ Fun and a variety of other companies use NuSun.

While demand is good, supply is tight, raising the price for NuSun oil. That is generally good, but too short a supply can limit access to additional markets. Isaak says the NSA is hopeful more acres will be planted to NuSun to keep pace with expected demand and to help the oil reach new markets.

“The price has to be considered against the values you are getting,” says Max Norris, AURI fats and oils scientist in Marshall. “One of the biggest values for NuSun is that it’s very low in trans fats. Other oils have to be hydrogenated, which adds trans fats and will have to be labeled as such. With NuSun you have a ready material with no trans-fats. That’s a great selling point.”

“If we can come through with a market that buys the oil for a consistent, fair price for the producer, that will help establish a consistent acre base,” Isaak says. The NSA is hopeful that farmers who have left sunflowers for other crops will reconsider. Several herbicide-resistant varieties, developed without biotechnology, will soon be available, which should make raising sunflowers as easy as raising soybeans.

“Certainly there is demand for this oil,” Isaak adds. “Because of that, we hope producers look hard at sunflowers as a planting choice … there is room for more acres.”