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SunButter Makes Market Debut

Monday, September 2, 2002
filed under: Utilization/Trade: Confection-Non-oil

“SunButter” Makes Market Debut

New Peanut Butter Alternative made from sunflower kernels Expected to Fill Market Niche in Schools, and Market Need for Those with Peanut Allergies

Sunbutter (, a new product similar to peanut butter but made from sunflower kernels, has the market potential to vie for as much as 10% of the huge peanut butter market, creating increased market demand for confection sunflower.

It will also allow several million people who are allergic to peanuts the pleasure of tasting their first peanut butter and jelly sandwich—or rather, their first Sunbutter and jelly sandwich.

Patent-pending and trademarked as “SunButter,” the new product contains sunflower seeds as its main ingredient. It is being marketed by SunGold Foods, a subsidiary of Red River Commodities, a processor of sunflower seed for the snack and bakery industries with its headquarters in Fargo, N.D., and confection plants in Colby, Kans. and Lubbock, Texas.

Actually, a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower kernels has been tried before, in fact, about 20 years ago. The product was not successful, however, primarily because it’s taste and appearance wasn’t on par with peanut butter. This product does measure up, thanks in part to the research collaboration of Red River Commodities and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in developing it.

Research chemist Isabel Lima, and food technologist Harmeet Guraya, both of the USDA-ARS Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, La., along with Red River Commodities, discovered a way to process sunflower seeds naturally so that they taste just like peanut butter when they are blended with other ingredients.

An independent taste test conducted last May involving the most critical of food critics—211 kids between the ages of 5 and 12—helped assure Sunbutter’s creators that they had developed a peanut butter alternative with consumer acceptance, and market potential. Over half rated Sunbutter an 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10, and almost half “definitely” preferred it to peanut butter. Sunbutter is the finished product, which looks similar to peanut butter—right down to the product color and container— with the same smooth, creamy texture and a mild yet distinctive sunflower seed flavor.

The Northern Crops Institute in Fargo also evaluated Sunbutter in traditional food products containing peanut butter—such as cereal bars, cookies, muffins, frozen pie, and icing—to determine how Sunbutter would affect processing and quality of foods including peanut butter as an ingredient.

In NCI’s evaluation, Sunbutter mixed or blended well into doughs and batters; performed well under moderate and high heating; and remained creamy and stable upon freezing. It did tend to impart a darker color in the products tested. This was due to the presence of a naturally occuring compound which serves as an antioxidant to stabilize the oil in sunflower kernels. NCI suggested that chemical leavening systems may need to be adjusted to optimize product color when using Sunbutter to replace peanut butter in commercial food products.

Answer to Peanut Allergies

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that about three million people are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, or both, with progressively more sufferers school age children. In the April 25, 2002 New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Hugh Sampson wrote that “food allergy—peanut allergy in particular—has become a major health concern in the United States and many other westernized countries.” There appears to be something unique about the peanut that is not shared compositionally by other members of the legume family or most other food proteins, Sampson writes.

There are several theories why peanut allergies are increasing: The growing demand for highly nutritional “quick energy” foods has made the peanut more of a staple in the American diet. Also, breast feeding is increasingly common, and peanut products have increasingly been promoted as excellent nutritional sources for pregnant and lactating women. Peanut allergy generally develops at an early age and unlike many other food allergies in children, is often a lifelong disorder.

Over 40% of the U.S. peanut crop is consumed as peanut butter. The USDA became involved in creating Sunbutter because of the growing number of schools that have barred peanut butter and peanut butter products from school cafeterias, not willing to shoulder health and legal risks associated with the potential of peanut allergies, with symptoms that can range from a mild case of hives to severe shock, and even death.

The USDA recognized sunflower seeds as a good peanut butter alternative from a nutritional standpoint as well. In a per serving comparison, Sunbutter has a protein profile similar to peanut butter, but is even better nutritionally with two grams more of fiber, 40% of the daily recommended intake for vitamin E, along with more iron, less saturated fat, and less sodium.

Partnering with Red River Commodities to create Sunbutter was also attractive to USDA because the company’s plant in Fargo where the product is made is located where peanuts cannot grow, reducing risk of peanut contamination. As an additional precaution, the company plans to test regularly for peanut residue in their ingredients and finished products.

Product May Bid for Confection Acres

If Sunbutter could carve out a market equal to just 10% of domestic annual peanut butter consumption, Red River Commodities would process 160 million pounds more sunflower than the company currently processes. This market share would represent 70 million pounds of Sunbutter. With average yields, 120,000 to 140,000 more acres of confection sunflower would be needed to supply this market.

“We’re telling sunflower producers, there are two ways you can support this market: Buy it at the store, and grow it for us,” says Dan Hofland, vice president of marketing for Sungold Foods. In fact, he says the company intends to have a booth at the regional farm show Big Iron, to encourage confection sunflower producers to grow “Sunbutter” acres next year.

Hofland says that when the product was launched, the intention was to focus primarily on the food service/school lunch market. Sungold is aiming Sunbutter at school districts in large metro areas of the country, such as Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The product has proven so popular thus far in the retail grocery market, however, that the company will likely focus on getting a foothold in that market as well. The retail price of Sunbutter is slightly above that of peanut butter in the grocery store now, but moving a larger volume of product to improve economy-of-scale may eventually bring the price of Sunbutter to the same level of peanut butter. – Tracy Sayler

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