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Food Journalists Visit Sunflower Country

Monday, August 28, 2017
filed under: Utilization/Trade

       “My first thought was ‘wow!’ ” said Linda Ohr when asked what her first reaction to seeing a blooming sunflower field.  Ohr is a writer for Food Technology magazine, based out of Denver, Colo.  Until recently, she had never seen a sunflower field.
       “I had only seen the sunflowers in the grocery store that I buy and put on my kitchen table,” she said.
       Ohr was one of six journalists who attended a one-day media event at Bismarck, N.D., on August 10.  The journalists, who write for some of the top food industry magazines in the nation, came to North Dakota to learn more about sunflower and see first-hand where it comes from.
       Diliara Iassonova, innovation director for oils and shortening research and development for Cargill, explained why sunflower oil is a good choice for a variety of applications, such as baking and frying. She also informed the group of the health benefits of sunflower oil and how it compares to other oils. Brian Owens of Stratas Foods talked about why non-GMO high-oleic sunflower oil is a good choice for food manufacturers compared to other oils on the market. Erik Heggen of ADM shared his thoughts on the latest food trends and how sunflower oil can play a role in ingredient formulations.
       “It’s important for journalists to have the opportunity to hear first-hand from experts on the best solutions for removing partially hydrogenated oils. We want them to know that sunflower oil is a great substitute for these oils,” explained Chris Gould, senior vice president with Harbinger Communications. ”It’s also important for them to understand the trends in food manufacturing and how sunflower oil fits into them.”
       “Hearing them talk about the fats and the PHO (partially hydrogenated oils) was great. I know all of that, but having face time with them where they’re not necessarily promoting their ingredients but rather just educating us was a lot more helpful than something like a trade show where it is very much about selling a product,” said Charlotte Atchley, senior editor of Baking & Snack magazine. “I write mostly about bakery and snack items, so the conversation about snack frying and solid fats for baking was very helpful.”
       The group also got some hands-on learning at Clark Coleman’s farm just north of Bismarck. Coleman raises beef cattle and farms about 8,000 acres; this year, 1,000 of those acres are high-oleic sunflower. He also grows spring wheat, winter wheat, malting barley, canola, soybeans and corn. But it was the sunflower fields, in full bloom, that captured the journalists’ attention and became a classroom of sorts.
       “You can get stuck in writing about ingredients and get kind of removed from everything. It was really great to meet a sunflower farmer and ask questions,” Ohr said. 
       “It is a much more lasting impression and you remember it far more than you would if you were talking to someone on the phone,” explained Lauren Hartman, product development editor for Food Processing magazine.  “It really is amazing and eye opening.  A lot of us have never seen that kind of field, or perhaps any farm field that close. It was neat to walk through the sunflower field, taste them, and see all the different purposes of sunflower oil.”
       “I’m totally a city girl and did not put together that sunflowers have to be grown and harvested to get my sunflower seeds in the convenience store,” admitted Atchley. “I didn’t realize that there were different kinds of sunflowers — and that Clark isn’t growing the ones I buy at the store and at the baseball stadium. He’s growing the ones that will be turned into oil. I didn’t realize that was different.”
       Coleman took the group to two sunflower fields and explained the planting, growing and harvesting process. He split open a sunflower head and let the journalists taste the high-oleic seed.
       “To be able to taste the seed and identify the difference between the seed used for oil and the seed used for snacking was great. I could taste the difference. It was interesting to see the anatomy of a sunflower when Clark cut it open and showed us the seeds,” said Adi Menayang, correspondent for Food Navigator-USA and Nutra Ingredients-USA. “This experience will help me whenever I write any story, not just about sunflowers. It helped me understand the relationship between manufacturers, suppliers and farmers. And now I can at least put a face to where sunflower comes from in North Dakota.”
       “It’s the same value I get when I go into a bakery plant,” explained Atchley. “When I’m writing a mixing story and doing the interviews on the phone, I have to ask how does the mixer work. It’s so much easier to visit the plant and see it in action. It’s the same thing here. Seeing it makes it easier to write about. It’s one thing to talk about things, and another to have someone like Clark take us into a field and explain how the rows are planted, here’s how we take the head of the sunflower off, this is where the seed is. I didn’t even know where the seed was until he showed us!”
       Coleman was happy to take time out of his busy day to educate about sunflower.  “It is important to do anything I can to promote the crops I produce,” he said.
         Added John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association:  “It’s important to bring media here from time to time — especially trade media who are reaching food manufacturers to profile sunflower. Trips like these are really beneficial for journalists to see the fields in bloom and have a chance to hear from experts first-hand and see it with their own eyes. Then [they can] go back and share the information with their readers, who are food manufacturers, food scientists, food technologists who are using a lot of sunflower oil.” — Jody Kerzman               
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