Soybean oil was once the gold standard for cooking oil, garnering a large share of the domestic market. It was in abundant supply and the strong oil markets helped support the price of soybeans.
More than a decade ago, an issue with trans-fats changed the equation and started a chain reaction that devastated the soybean oil demand. However, recent action by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could open the door for a next generation soybean oil to get back into the food, frying and cooking market in a big way.
To make soybean oil more solid, provide longer shelf-life in baked products and offer longer fry-life for cooking, it had to be hydrogenated. Trans-fats are formed through hydrogenation, which converts the liquid into a solid fat at room temperature.
According to the FDA, eating trans-fats raises the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol in the blood. And an elevated LDL cholesterol level has been shown to increase the risk of developing heart disease.
The trans-fats issue had a major impact on the nation’s soybean industry and farmers. Soybean oil lost an estimated 5.5 billion pounds of demand from U.S. food companies as a result and soybean processors were left to find markets for billions of pounds of soybean oil.
Soy industry leaders and seed companies saw the trendlines and were in dire need of opportunities. One option was to invest in the development of high oleic soybeans.
As the name implies, high oleic soybean oil contains a higher level of oleic acid than conventional soybean oil. Oleic acid is an omega fatty acid. High oleic oil offers food companies increased functionality, such as extended fry life, increased stability and a neutral flavor profile, making it ideal for frying, sautéing, and providing baked goods and snack foods without hydrogenation.
Just as earlier FDA actions spelled trouble for soybean oil, a recent announcement from the organization may help high oleic soybeans recapture some of what was lost.
In November 2018, FDA authorized the use of a qualified health claim citing that oils high in oleic acid may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Food companies with existing products that meet FDA requirements can consider adding the health claim to labels of foods made with the ingredient and brands seeking to source heart-healthy ingredients for emerging products can test high oleic soybean oil in their formulations. The FDA statement didn’t specifically mention high oleic soybean oil in its authorized health claim, but it applies to edible oils containing at least 70 percent of oleic acid per serving.
“High oleic soybean oil has a high level of oleic acid which is a mono-unsaturated acid,” says Lolly Occhino, AURI Food and Nutrition Scientist.” High oleic soybean oil has about three times as much oleic acid as conventional soybean oil and a similar amount to olive oil. The FDA Qualified Health Claim pertains to edible oils with at least 70 percent oleic oil. The oleic acid content in high oleic soybean oil exceeds 70 percent and can be as high as 75 percent. In addition, high oleic soybean oil is low in saturated fat and since it does not need to be hydrogenated is trans-fat free.”
The FDA statement extends to a number of specific edible oils including high oleic versions of sunflower, safflower, canola, olive and algal oil. High oleic soybean oil will face market competition from those oils, but the authorized health claim gets soybean oil back in the game.
“Unfortunately, the FDA statement did not specifically call out high oleic soybean oil in its list,” says Kim Nill, director of market development for the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (MSRPC). “If the soy checkoff organizations can publicize enough the fact that high oleic soybean oils such as Plenish®, TruSoya®, Vistive Gold®, and Calyxt® oils also meet this FDA category criteria, it might help persuade food manufacturers to switch to utilizing those high oleic soybean oils and thus create more demand for
The new health claims may motivate consumer packaged goods and private label brands to consider reformulating products, such as salad dressings or bottled vegetable oils, using high oleic soybean oil,” says Dan Corcoran, chairman of QUALISOY, a third-party collaboration among the soybean industry. “This announcement serves as an opportunity for those companies, as well as high oleic soybean oil suppliers and distributors, to call the health claim out on packaging to help drive sales.”
“As farmers, we take joy in providing Americans with an ingredient that has the potential to improve nutrition and prevent chronic disease, so the news of the qualified health claims is a source of pride for all U.S. soybean farmers,” adds Lewis Bainbridge, United Soybean Board chair and farmer from Ethan, South Dakota. “High oleic soybean oil is a sustainably produced crop, and consumers and the food industry alike can be confident that they are serving a quality ingredient to their families and customers.”
“I think consumers are becoming savvier, and are following headlines about foods,” Occhino adds. “They are more selective regarding their food choices. They are demanding products that taste good but also provide health benefits or that lack the negative attributes such as foods high in cholesterol or sodium.”
AURI Staff handed out samples of foods cooked in high oleic soybean oil at FarmFest in 2018. Ben Swanson, AURI food and nutrition scientist, said “people were loving the fact that the oil comes from soybeans grown in Minnesota. The oil performs as well as other high oleic oils on the market and it tastes good.”
“Consumers are increasingly interested in the nexus of food and health and seek more information about the food they consume,” explains AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht. “Recognition by the FDA of the health benefits of high oleic oils provides more information for consumers wanting to make informed decisions.”
To reach mass markets with high oleic soybean oil, there needs to be adequate soybean production. Nill says Minnesota farmers are planting a growing number of acres to high oleic varieties. Approximately 30,000 acres of high oleic soybeans were grown in Minnesota during the 2018 growing season, according to Nill, with another 120,000 acres grown in other states.
Not only can Minnesota farmers grow high oleic varieties, the state also has the capacity to crush the soybeans. Nill says the output of 25,000 acres of high oleic soybeans were crushed and the oil refined in Minnesota during 2017. That number grew to 30,000 acres of high oleic soybeans processed in Minnesota in 2018.
In addition to recapturing lost market share, high oleic soybeans could help create new market opportunities and mitigate some of the current price reductions caused by export disruptions.
“The current soybean trade and export challenges have made clearer than ever before the benefits of having as many, and as diversified as possible, markets for all soybean oils,” Nill states.