Rarely do restaurants and foodservice operators have the opportunity to improve the quality and healthfulness of their products while saving costs , but that’s exactly what three universities in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin discovered during a test of high oleic soybean oil conducted by AURI and funded by the United Soybean Board. The test, a key element of a pilot program to demonstrate a model for building grass-roots demand within the foodservice channel, was recently highlighted in a soybean oil innovation session held at The Good Acre in St. Paul.
Commercialization of high oleic soybean oil has been a focus of the U.S. soybean industry for several years. The United Soybean Board, in partnership with Pioneer and Monsanto, developed high oleic soybean oil as a solution to trans-fat labelling requirements and the subsequent ban on partially-hydrogenated oils. High oleic soybean oil, which is naturally trans-fat free, contains three times the monounsaturated fat and significantly less saturated fat than conventional oils, providing high stability in frying applications and extended shelf life in packaged foods. While much of the early promotion of the oil focused on aligning upstream stakeholders such as farmers, processors and oil distributors, AURI recognized an opportunity to help spur demand with end users through deployment of a multi-location pilot program that validated lab testing in real-world scenarios and exposed front-line personnel to the benefits of the oil.
“Laboratory oil studies, where a single food item is fried on a highly monitored, rigid schedule, are hard to make relevant to foodservice operators,” said Dr. Jimmy Gosse, AURI microbiologist in charge of the project. “They don’t reflect the variability in products, demand and labor that a foodservice operator faces in their business,” he continued.
Building on an initial frying study with Sodexo and Chartwells, the foodservice providers at the University of Minnesota Crookston (UMC) and Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), AURI recognized an opportunity to leverage information and positive results with other universities in the same systems to expand demand for high oleic soybean oil within Minnesota. The hypothesis was foodservice operators would be more engaged in learning about test results from similar institutions than from a commercial, national oil distributor.
AURI recruited three facilities for this pilot program, Riverland Community College (RCC) in Austin, MN; University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF); and Minnesota State Community and Technical College (M-State) in Moorhead. Each location was provided a Testo Meter, a handheld device that rapidly measures oil temperature and Total Polar Materials (TPM), a measure of oil quality, without interruption to frying operations. The simplicity of measurement was critical to the success of the pilot program, as testing could not distract operators during peak times.
The three locations were asked to establish a baseline by testing their current oil on a daily basis from fresh to their typical disposal point, which was often determined by a specific day of the week. The pilot locations were then instructed to change to high oleic soybean oil and take daily quality readings until the point it reached 25% TPM, which is an industry standard disposal point for frying oil.
As anticipated, the high oleic soybean oil outperformed the standard oil used by the pilot facilities. In most cases, it showed potential to last more than twice as long as the standard oil providing the facility an opportunity for cost savings via reduced oil usage and associated disposal costs. At UWRF, where the facility previously used a high-performance frying oil, high oleic soybean oil proved to last a comparable amount of time, offering the opportunity to take advantage of soybean oil’s cleaner flavor profile. Furthermore, the on-site foodservice management team recognized the additional benefit of reduced injury risk from less handling of spent oil .
What’s more, the test results were consistent despite significant differences in the operation of the three facilities. RCC and M-State are both low-volume operations, frying a mix of products, while UWRF is a high-volume, multi-fryer facility with some fryers dedicated to individual items such as French fries while others are used as mixed-use fryers.
To highlight the results of the pilot program, AURI, along with the United Soybean Board, hosted a High Oleic Soybean Oil Innovation Session at The Good Acre in St. Paul. The event shared details of this initiative as well as the benefits of high oleic soybean oil with local restaurants and foodservice operators, as well as Minnesota food and agriculture industry representatives.
Attendees had an opportunity to experience foods made with high oleic soybean oil. Local chef Shelagh Mullen created fritters featuring vegetables grown by The Good Acre farmers and local food entrepreneur PaSee Yang fried egg rolls in high oleic soybean oil allowing attendees to experience the clean flavor and low oil absorption into the foods fried in the oil. Yang, a food entrepreneur and AURI client said, “In the past, we would fry the egg roll and still see some oil inside, but with this oil there’s no oil inside the egg roll. And, the texture is a lot better.”
In addition, Mullen served rosemary focaccia with high oleic soybean dipping oil and breakfast scones with icing to demonstrate the oil’s versatility in applications beyond frying. Shortening made from high oleic soybean oil, with its high stability and low saturated fat, makes an excellent drop-in solution for bakers looking for options to current shortenings and it is gaining popularity as distribution grows. “It’s really nice to be able to use a different kind of oil other than olive oil for different needs in my kitchen. And to try another oil that has some health benefits is definitely worthwhile,” said Mullen.
To try the oil first hand, restauranteurs and food manufacturers in attendance were offered a ten-gallon sample of one of the commercially available high oleic soybean oils to test in their operation. Additionally, one restauranteur, Mahmoud Shahin, owner of Mim’s Café near the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, won a giveaway for a year’s supply of oil.
The session was highlighted by presentations from AURI staff involved in the project that shared the universities’ experience moving to this advanced cooking oil, as well as Lawerence Sukalski, a soybean farmer from Southwest Minnesota and USB board member. “The success of high oleic soybeans is important to Minnesota farmers,” said Sukalski. “With the competitive pressures from other oil options, high oleic soybean oil gives the soy industry a product that competes well,” he continued.
While intended to share program results, the event also provided an opportunity for high oleic soybean industry stakeholders, including the United Soybean Board, Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotions Council, Cargill, Calyxt, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and several restauranteurs to discuss the current state of high oleic soybean oil in Minnesota.
As a result of the successful test and the challenges to adoption, AURI is actively seeking to share test results at the regional level of each universities’ foodservice provider to encourage a shift to high oleic soybean oil. Project leaders provided a strategic recommendation to approaching the university foodservice channel and are collaborating with United Soybean Board partners to identify key decision-makers and foster discussions to drive trial and adoption. Driving adoption in a larger number of foodservice settings will positively impact the long-term viability of high oleic soybean oil in Minnesota. Universities purchase oil from the same broadline foodservice distributors that serve local restaurants. As with any distributor, stocking the products with the greatest demand is critical to their success.
Soybeans are a vital crop to Minnesota’s economy with more than 28,000 Minnesota farmers growing soybeans annually. Producing more than 11.5 million tons of soybeans places the state third for total soybean production and contributes more than $3.3 billion of economic impact to the state. As AURI works to foster long-term economic benefit for Minnesota through value-added agricultural products, supporting development of high oleic soybean oil has immediate positive impact. Compared to commodity soybeans, farmers growing high oleic soybeans capture up to a five percent premium allowing them to improve their bottom line in agriculture’s challenging economic environment.