Toops Scoops: Cargill builds a sustainable supply chain for its oils

How do you turn wellness trends into reality? It comes down to the mystery of the black box – problem-based situations that offer a hypothetical mystery and need to be solved.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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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.