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High Oleic Sun Oil: Soon to Become the Standard?

Saturday, September 1, 2012
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Titled “Dawn Breaking on the ‘NuSun’ Era,” an article in the January 1998 issue of The Sunflower began with the following words:

“If the term ‘NuSun’ is not already in-grained in your mind, it soon will be — and with good reason. NuSun™ is the name which has been given to the mid-oleic (monounsaturated) sunflower oil contained in hybrids which will be grown on about 100,000 acres in 1998 and an anticipated 500,000 acres the following year. It is expected that NuSun hybrids eventually will be grown on most oil-type sunflower acreage in the United States.”

That expectation, as we now know, rang true in an emphatic manner. As of 2003, NuSun varieties comprised 55% of U.S. oil-type sunflower acreage; by 2007, it was in the 85-90% range. “Traditional” high linoleic sunflower oil, the industry’s mainstay since the latter 1960s, had assumed a distinct second place in the U.S. sun oil arena.

What prompted this dramatic shift? It was all about market share, present and future. For a number of years prior to the latter 1990s, the U.S. sunflower industry was heavily dependent upon export markets for most of its oil sales. During the period between market years 1980/81 through 1994/95, export sales of U.S. sunflower oil always outpaced domestic usage — and often by a very wide margin. Having most of its eggs in the export basket was not, it was generally agreed, in the best long-term interest of the nation’s sunflower industry.

That view coincided, during the 1990s, with domestic food processors’ expanding interest in and desire for healthier oils — ones lower in saturated fats, reduced trans-fatty acids and minus the need for hydrogenation. This interest was spawned by considerable research and wide publicity

Into that environment came NuSun, a mid-oleic oil with a saturated fat content of just 9% (compared to 11% for traditional sun oil, 13% for corn oil, 15% for soybean oil and 27% for cottonseed oil). NuSun’s oleic content, which ran in the 55-70% range, made it a very stable frying oil, one not requiring hydrogenation.

So since the latter 1990s, the “public face” of sunflower oil in the United States has been NuSun — and it has been a definite success story. During the five-year period of 2006/07 through 2010/11, domestic sun oil usage has averaged 550 million pounds per year. That compares with just below 174 million pounds annually for the period of 1993/94 through 1997/98.

Of course, farmers were not about to grow NuSun varieties unless they performed as well as, or better than, traditional sunflower varieties. Seed companies were full participants in the transition, developing NuSun hybrids that had the complete package: acceptable yield, good oil content and other necessary agronomic traits, such as disease resistance. Today, every mainline sunflower seed company offers high-performing NuSun varieties.

Although the NuSun era is still going strong, it now appears that the U.S. sunflower industry is once again poised for a major shift in the predominant type of oil it wants to offer the marketplace. The promising new star, waiting in the wings as of 2012, is high oleic sunflower oil.

High oleic sun oil actually has been around since the mid-1980s, though for several years its production was restricted to just one company due to patent issues. Today, most sunflower seed suppliers offer at least one or two (sometimes more) high oleic hybrids. But to date, it essentially has fed a “niche” market, covering a relatively small acreage compared to NuSun varieties.

The big difference between high oleic sun oil and NuSun oil is the level of oleic (monounsaturated) acid. Whereas NuSun typically hovers in the 60-65% range, high oleic has a minimum of 80%. In terms of saturated fat, high oleic sun oil comes in at about 7% — the same as the industry standard for this category, canola oil. (NuSun’s saturated fat level runs around 9%, which is still an improvement over corn or soybean.)

That low-sat fat level is the basis for the intensifying interest in moving the U.S. oil sunflower industry beyond the NuSun era and into one in which high oleic is the dominant form of sunflower oil. Why? The motive is similar to that which prompted the industry to move toward NuSun back in the 1990s: supply what the market wants.

“The market is always evolving,” notes Guy Christensen, longtime oilseed marketing representative for Northern Sun-ADM at Enderlin, N.D. A major reason why, he pointed out during a panel discussion at the 2012 National Sunflower Association Summer Seminar, is the accumulated research on the benefits/downsides on various types of vegetable oils — and the evolving public perception of what’s healthy and what’s not, in terms of the oils they consume.

As of 2012, it’s all about saturated fat and trans fat. For both, the current consensus calls for lowering them as much as possible. “Today’s thinking is, ‘Don’t cut out all the fat; but replace the saturated fats with monos and polys(polyunsaturates),’ ” Christensen stated. “It’s the healthy fats that we’re looking for.” Current “heart healthy” alternatives to hydrogenated/high¬sat fat oils generally offer two key benefits:

(1) zero trans fat and (2) saturated fat levels below 7%. To be successful commercially, they also must be very stable (for extended shelf life and fry life) and have superior (i.e., neutral) taste characteristics.

To date, the leader of the healthy pack has been canola oil. Its 7% sat fat has been a tremendous advantage in the marketplace. While NuSun has been a distinct success for the sunflower industry, the increasing market demand for zero trans fat and as-low-as-possible saturated fat levels has convinced many within the sunflower sector that high oleic oil is the best option for maintaining and growing market share down the road.

John Swanson, a 40-year veteran of the sunflower seed industry and secretary/treasurer of the NSA Board of Directors, believes the big question is not whether to transition from NuSun to high oleic, but rather, “What can we do as an industry to make this work?” That question encompasses several fronts: “What does the consumer want? What does the processor want? What will work on the farm? It has to be a win:win situation,” Swanson emphasized at the 2012 Summer Seminar.

Tyler Schultz, manager of the Cargill multi-seed processing plant at West Fargo, N.D., another panel member at the NSA Summer Seminar, stressed the need for balance in the transition to a high oleic focus — a balance not unlike that required in the 1990s when the industry switched over to NuSun. “We need to have a cost-competitive product,” he stated. “How do we find that balance between giving the grower a good return, but also having oil prices that can be competitive in the marketplace?”

In his company’s view, Schultz observed, the key will be to increase yields in order to give growers the returns they need to keep sunflower in rotations. While sunflower yields generally have trended upward over the past 10-15 years, the rate of increase has not kept pace with that of corn or soybeans. “I think the biggest thing — the most challenging — is to get the yield up and see a trend line similar to corn,” he said.

“We believe most NuSun oil users can and will use high oleic; but it needs to be price competitive with high oleic canola, with corn, and with the other options they have,” Schultz concluded.

DowAgroSciences is on the cutting edge of the curve. In the summer of 2011, the company unveiled its development of a trans-fat-free and ultralow saturated fat sunflower oil called Omega 9. This primarily oleic oil, which contains total saturates of just 3%, is expected to hit the commercial market by 2014 or 2015.

Omega 9 is the only existing U.S. veg oil qualifying for the “zero fat” label, based on a 14g serving size, said Asim Syed, Dow AgroSciences’ head of global food applica-tions R&D, another speaker at this summer’s NSA event. Along with its extremely low saturated fat level, the oil also ranks highest (among NuSun, canola, soybean and corn oils) in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat at 93%. That compares to 65% for NuSun, 62% for canola, 23% for soybean and 28% for corn. Taste tests conducted by third-party sensory labs in the U.S. and EU have been very favorable, with Omega 9 exhibiting a very neutral taste. Because of the oleic acid-based fatty acid profile, the Omega 9 sun oil is the most stable of all natural liquid edible oils available today, Syed noted. “That stability provides excellent shelf life, long fry life and very high resistance to polymerization,” he added. “Application studies show that it is an ideal oil for use in all food applications at home, in restaurant chains and in processed foods.”

In summing up his presentation to the 2012 NSA Summer Seminar audience, ADM’s Christensen highlighted three primary drivers in defining today’s oil market:

• Transition Away from Hydrogenation — As of 2004, about 65% of the total North American vegetable oil market consisted of hydrogenated oils — mainly soybean. That percentage continues to shrink.

• Renewable Fuels Mandate — With a current target of 1 billion gallons annually (and possibly up to 1.28 billion), this area is a “big wild card,” depending upon how it plays out. Soy oil will be the main supplier.

• Dietary Guidance — Volumes of research and an increasingly informed — and concerned — public make this a huge factor on the demand side. More healthy options (e.g., high oleic sunflower oil) are becoming available.

Sunflower is well positioned to take advantage of these developments, Christensen emphasized, for several reasons: “One, we already have the ‘healthy oil’ perception. “Two, we have commercial hybrids available that can help lower saturated fats. “Three, we can move toward 7% or lower saturates over time. “Four, by focusing our hybrid breeding programs, we don’t need to develop as many segments. “Five, [with] trans fats already being legislated out of foods in many municipalities definitely provides opportunity for oils like sunflower and canola. “Six, GMO labeling referendums also are popping up in several states, which presents opportunity for sunflower and other non-GMO oils.” Christensen also pointed to another im¬portant consideration: the trend among food processors toward using more blends rather than stand-alone oils. This trend is driven both by price and by the product formulation flexibility that it allows. So for sunflower oil, the bottomline emphasis should be on enhancing its value as an ingredient, Christensen stated. The transition from NuSun to high oleic sunflower oil must be a winning formula for all sectors of the industry, reiterated seedsman John Swanson. “I think high oleic is definitely the opportunity for our industry,” Swanson stressed. “We need to put more emphasis on that (rather than on NuSun) so we can focus more on yield and oil and grow the business.” How soon will it happen? The 2013 season’s hybrids are being produced this year, as are the inbreds that will go into 2014 hybrid seed production fields. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” Swanson observed. “But this is the direction in which I believe we must move. We need tools to keep sunflower competitive with corn, soybeans, canola.”

— Don Lilleboe
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