Just as the large, golden blooms of a sunflower pivot to follow the sun (a phenomenon called heliotropism), food manufacturers similarly find themselves striving to stay on the sunny side of consumers, who continue to up their demands for healthier, sustainable and traceable ingredients.
Recently, high-oleic oils increased their luster when, in November of last year, the FDA authorized a qualified health claim relating consumption of these oils to a reduced risk of heart disease.
The following wording will be allowed by FDA as a package claim: “Supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about 1½ tablespoons (20g) of oils containing high levels of oleic acid [at least 70%], may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
The variety of oils that would be eligible for this health claim includes high-oleic canola, high-oleic sunflower, high-oleic safflower, high-oleic soybean oil, high-oleic algal oil and olive oil. High-oleic soybean oil was not on the original FDA list but also qualifies for the claim, according to the United Soybean Board.
"The soybean industry was in the beginning stages of building the market for high-oleic soybean oil when the petition was created," explains a spokesperson for the board (unitedsoybean.org). "With its December 2017 global approval, the [soybean] industry is committed to producing 9 billion pounds of U.S.-grown high-oleic soybean oil by 2027, and high-oleic soybeans are on track to be the fourth largest row crop by 2024."
A high-oleic oil is any oil high in monounsaturated fats. Each of the aforementioned oils has a high level of monounsaturated fats but varying levels of polyunsaturated fats—the more the polyunsaturated content, the lower the shelf stability.
In terms of global consumption, palm oil is the clear leader, although it's not widely used in the U.S. and Canada. Soybean oil still leads in these parts, and it's catching up to palm oil on the global stage.
When performance is comparable, price is certainly a consideration. However, will price tip the scale when labeling concerns include the goal of claiming a product is GMO free? For example, while canola oil might pose a lower price point than sunflower, non-GMO canola oil is a fraction of the overall supply. This is equally true for soybean oil. Sunflower and safflower oils are naturally 100 percent GMO free, offering a potential marketing advantage.
Looking on the sunny side
Sunflowers belong to the largest family of flowering plants while safflower is closely related to thistles. Sunflowers are not the only plants that follow the sun but might be the most obvious due to their large flower.
“The sunflower’s big, central head was caused by human selection; it happens very infrequently in the wild,” said Brent Hulke, research geneticist for USDA Agricultural Research Service in Fargo, N.D. Its development was a trait encouraged by native American breeders. “This increased the yield and made the plants more manageable.”
Naturally sunflowers can be divided into the oilseed and non-oilseed varieties. “Non-oil types have more carbs and protein to make up for the lack of oil,” said Hulke, while the oilseed type might contain as much as 50 percent of its seed weight in oil.
South and North Dakota lead the nation in terms of sunflower production. Currently 80 percent of the crop is sold and consumed domestically, partly due to the current trade situation. Last year’s production was 9 percent above 2017 totals, and farmers are expected to increase their plantings for 2019. Sunflower oil is available in quantities from a jug to tanker.
In terms of application use and performance, according to John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Assn. (www.sunflowernsa.com), high-oleic sunflower oil finds its use in food manufacturing primarily for par-fried snacks like potato chips or corn chips. It is also used in some sauces, marinades and dressings, vegetarian meals, as spray coatings for cereal, crackers and dried fruits and in some bakery products.
The smoke point for sunflower oil is approximately 450 degrees for “an excellent fry life.” Its low linoleic acid content provides a longer shelf life as well. “Off flavors and odors are not a problem,” said Sandbakken, “and with that neutral taste, the seasonings and flavorings can really shine in the end product.”
Pricewise, Sandbakken says canola is similar to sunflower oil in terms of price. He claims a longer fry life for sunflower when compared to canola “and when looking at the economics of it, how long does that oil last in the fryer?” According to the sunflower association, the high-oleic variety supplies a fry time of approximately 20 hours. An experimental sunflower oil, currently unavailable, demonstrated a 23-hour fry life during testing.
“Obviously product porosity will affect fry life,” said Sandbakken. “The more porous the product, the more oil it will absorb, and this would shorten fry time or fry life. A Cheeto, for example, as a more porous product than a chip, would be a high-absorption application.
“Something everybody is looking for is clean labels," Sandbakken continues. "Consumers want to eat healthier and the fact that 100 percent of the sunflower crop is non-GMO assured, no matter where they buy their sunflower, gives us a strong advantage.”
The various oils in their high-oleic form offer advantages or benefits for food manufacturers compared to their traditional versions. High-oleic canola oil offers a high heat tolerance, more stability and a longer shelf life compared to regular canola oil, according to Angela Dansby, communications director for the U.S. Canola Assn. (www.uscanola.com).High-oleic canola oil offers higher heat tolerance, more stability and a longer shelf life compared to regular canola oil.
Dansby says canola oil is used in applications ranging from granola bars to potato chips. “Its neutral taste and light texture make it idea for virtually all food products unless a distinctive oil flavor is desired.”
Compared to sunflower oil, the smoke point for regular canola is slightly higher, 468 degrees F. “If a longer shelf life is required,” she says, “then high-oleic canola oil is even better as its higher content of monounsaturated fat makes it more shelf stable with a slightly higher smoke point (475 F)." High-oleic canola oil is only available to the commercial food sector.
Among comparable products, canola oil has the least unhealthy saturated fat and most heart-smart omega-3 content of all common edible oils. “In fact, FDA authorized a qualified health claim in 2006 about canola oil’s ability to reduce the risk of heart disease when used in place of unsaturated fat,” said Dansby.
Also, according to Dansby, canola oil is available in greater abundance and can beat sunflower and safflower oils on price.
Most canola grown in North America comes from “biotech, herbicide-resistant varieties because they are superior to other varieties in controlling weeds. Not that oil made from biotech varieties is different than that made from non-GMO varieties in terms of safety or quality.” She adds, “Biotech traits are not detectable in oils anyway as they are conferred via protein and oil is 100 percent fat.”
Overall, in terms of staying on the sunny side of a healthy diet, Dansby noted the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend liquid vegetable oils in place of saturated fats to help consumers stay below the 10 percent daily intake of saturated fat. While canola oil is recommended in the guidelines as a healthy choice, any of the varieties listed as a high-oleic variety would be a valid choice as well.