Many black box mysteries – such as how are new plants identified and bred to have the oil traits needed to create healthier oils to fight obesity and heart disease -- are being solved by the Cargill Specialty Canola Oils Innovation Center, Fort Collins, Colo. This facility contains a breadth of R&D, from genes to food, in its labs. A short walk takes you to a greenhouse with the next generation of canola plants … then to trait discovery labs working out the next healthy oil solution … on to oil and food analytical labs testing seed and food compositions … then come the sensory lab and food kitchens.
Cargill claims to be the only oil supplier that does its own seed development. Using natural hybrid selection, the seed has been bred to have strong agronomic traits, including resistance to disease. The Cargill Breeding Center in Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, develops high-performance Victory canola hybrids for customers in North America.
Corporately, Cargill is on a mission to create functional healthy oils and fats so the food industry can remove unhealthy fats from the American diet. Using environmentally controlled plant growing facilities and applying cutting-edge genetics, molecular biology and genomic and bioinformatic techniques to develop oils, Cargill's plant technology base is aligned with a food applications team ensuring the delivery of stand-alone and blended ingredients.
Visiting the center recently, I found the work being done far more exciting than facing the wolf we encountered in the parking lot. That says a lot for a city girl who never saw a wolf that wasn't in a zoo. I was there for a sneak peek at Cargill's new Clear Valley Omega-3 Oil, a heart-healthy canola/flaxseed oil blend, which debuted at IFT.
That's a good marriage. Canola oil is the vegetable oil lowest in saturated fats. And omega-3s, the healthy, polyunsaturated essential fatty acids found in fish, flax, canola oil, pumpkin seeds and walnuts, are not being consumed enough in the American diet. It's imperative for the food industry and its suppliers to incorporate them into food products. "We wanted to develop a neutral tasting, healthy oil with the right blend of fatty acids and stability so that it would be adopted by food manufacturers of shelf-stable products," says Lorin DeBonte, assistant vice president and technical director, who worked on the project.
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids raises HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels and may help prevent cardiovascular disease. There are three main dietary omega-3 fatty acids – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha linolenic (ALA) acid. "Outside of fish, only algae makes EPA and DHA, but plants such as canola and flax make ALA," explains DeBonte. "Omega-3s in flax are able to reach mainstream products when combined with high-oleic canola oil and a natural antioxidant package."
“Our group, affectionately called CSI (canola seed investigation), extracts DNA from leaf or seed tissue and screens for markers. This data contributes to the overall effort to choose the best plants for advancement, which ultimately improves the attributes of the seed”
- Molly Lauterbach, germplasm screening supervisor
Cargill recently completed a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) self-determination for the patent-pending ingredient, which allows food manufacturers to make a "good source of ALA (alpha linolenic acid) omega-3" or "excellent source of ALA omega-3" nutrient content claim on their packages. The new oil contains up to 30 percent of ALA omega-3 and provides a minimum of 160mg of ALA in most applications.
The taste is neutral, so it doesn't interfere with established flavor profiles, and it's low in saturated fat. It's ideal in cookies, cereal bars, crackers, snacks and spreads. Due to the high stability, it is suitable for those products requiring 9-12 months of shelf life. And there is no need to modify recipes or formulas.
"Moving the benefits of omega-3 from the refrigerated section to the center of grocery store has been the goal, but stabilizing the oil so that flavor, texture and shelf life of the finished product aren't impacted has been a multiyear journey," says DeBonte.
He worked at DNA Plant Technology Corp., and began a breeding project for high-stability canola oils in 1987, when canola was barely on the radar for food processors. In fact, only small amounts of canola crops were grown in the U.S. and were then sent to Canada for crushing. DeBonte and his team's revolutionary idea, based on research that trans fat consumption was linked to heart disease, was way ahead of its time – and time was what his team needed to change the genetics of the seed to make it resistant to disease and stable in processing applications.
Cargill, meanwhile, was on the same wavelength. In 1994, knowing that trans fat would be an issue, the company purchased InterMountain Canola Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of DuPont Agricultural Products Group, with the express purpose of creating a high-oleic oil to lower and eventually remove trans fat. That was more than 10 years before trans fat labeling appeared on packaged foods.
The InterMountain acquisition was perfectly timed and included the expertise of DeBonte and Willie Loh, now vice president of marketing for Cargill Oils & Shortenings. Cargill built a team committed to improving the health and stability of canola oil, and natural breeding techniques led to the development of healthier oils that maintain stability in a variety of applications. Since Cargill controls the entire supply chain it can ensure the purity of the oil trait in the seeds. In 1997, the division moved to a former wheat breeding station in Fort Collins.
It costs millions of dollars and years of work to examine and test several hundred thousand plants to identify the next generation. And since there are two customers – the oil customer and the grower – Cargill is continually improving the seed variety for increased yield and agronomic performance even though the oil trait may remain the same and only one new variety of seed is developed every two years.
Recent investments in the Ft. Collins facility, the expansion of the Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, breeding center and a new seed-processing center in Idaho Falls, Idaho, create a focus on oil innovation, most recently around omega-3s and low saturate technology. However, the grower also is an important customer. To convince thousands of growers to be part of the program and contract over 1.5 million acres in Canada and North Dakota, the canola plants must have the same yield and disease resistance that growers would find from other canola plants.
Today, some 125,000 seeds are planted per acre, and plants mature in 90 days. "Canola has the highest oil content (45 percent) compared to soy at 18 percent, so the output per acre is great," says DeBonte.
By 2005, the backlash on trans fat was in full bloom; food manufacturers needed healthier replacement oils with relatively low cost and high performance. Cargill was ready with a gene to plate approach, ensuring traceability and no cross-contamination.
The Victory Hybrid canola seed platform is the basis for Clear Valley oils CV 65 (which is 65 percent oleic acid and 3 percent ALA) and CV 75 (75 percent oleic acid and 3 percent ALA). Both of these oils have been developed to create a longer fry life in frying applications and a longer shelf life in products requiring higher oxidative stability -- such as nutrition bars, cereals, beverages, etc. Blends including canola, corn, soybean and/or sunflower seeds are available for certain flavor and mouthfeel attributes.
Clear Valley Low Saturate Oil, a high stability canola oil with 4 to 4.5 percent saturated fat, 40 percent less than conventional canola oil, and the lowest amount of saturated fat of any vegetable oil, was announced last year. "This is the next step in improving the nutritional profile of fats and improving people's health," says DeBonte. "There's so much passion here to create better oils. Cargill has removed hundreds of millions of pounds of trans fats from foods and has changed people's lives without the flavor, texture or taste of the food changing."