A recent trip to North Dakota's glowing farming areas made it clear it was sunflower season, as the land was abundant with acres of the tall, sturdy, bright yellow plants. Because of a drought this summer, however, the crop near Bismarck, N.D., wasn't as tall as in past years, noted farmer Clark Coleman. But still, his crop is growing well, as the majestic plants can handle fairly dry conditions.
Our group of mostly city-dwelling B2B editors were hosted by the National Sunflower Association, (NSA), Mandan, N.D., a nonprofit agricultural organization of growers, supporters and ingredient suppliers, to tour the Coleman farm during a media event in August. The NSA along with a few of its members, also gave us much insight into how sunflower oil is made and its advantages over partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) during a morning of presentations.
Committed to funding public sunflower research that will hopefully lead to disease- and pest-tolerant hybrids, better cropping practices and ways to reduce production costs, the association strives to increase profitability to sunflower producers by mitigating risk and facilitating production, while keeping producers interested in the crop, notes executive director John Sandbakken.
Sunflowers became an agronomic crop in the U.S. in the 1950s, starting in North Dakota and Minnesota, though they grow in other Plains states, as well as in Texas and to a lesser extent, in the Midwest.
Before we visited the farm and took in the spacious, bucolic scenery, we tourists got a chance to learn why sunflowers may play a critical role in replacing PHOs in assorted processed foods.
This is especially useful for U.S. food manufacturers, who will have to comply with an FDA ruling to completely replace PHOs by June of next year, in favor of healthier alternatives. A key source of artificial trans fat, PHOs come in many forms, have served many functions and been used for years in many quick-serve restaurant fryers and bakeries. Various liquid oils and solid fats are being evaluated to replace them and sunflower oil and sunflower oil blends are coming out on top as part of a new generation of PHO-free products, the NSA said.
Both the association and its members are promoting sunflower oil's high content of "good fats" (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and low levels of "bad fats" (trans and saturated fats). In fact, we heard presentations from a few of the NSA members that produce and provide organic sunflower oil to the food industry. They related the evolution of fats and oils in food, as well as trends, the benefits of sunflower oil and the future of food oils. Omega-9 fatty acids, or oleic acid, makes the oil both more stable and healthful. Sunflower oil also supplies more vitamin E than any other vegetable oil, and we heard about the three types of sunflower oil available: NuSUN; linoleic; and HoSUN high oleic, all developed in conjunction with the NSA using standard breeding techniques. Each oil differs in oleic (monosaturated) levels, and each has unique properties.
"Vegetable oil is in a state of transition," noted Erik Heggen, president of North American refined oils, at Archer Daniels Midland Co., presenting different levels of saturate reductions. "There's no one solution to replacing PHOs because there were thousands of PHO-containing food products on the market. Consumers have a lot of concerns when it comes to the ingredients in food manufacturing, and this influences the concerns of food manufacturers," he pointed out.
"Consumers are asking for improved health profiles and clean labels while the food industry also contends with cost, stability, sustainability and functionality. When reformulating, food companies need to solve several issues in their search for alternative products, making reformulation complex and difficult to predict. Sunflower oil is a great choice in many applications to meet these needs."
The future will tell what sort of role the government plays in saturated fat reduction and with clean or pantry-friendly labeling where food oils are concerned, Heggen added. "We're thinking a lot right now about blends and trait-enhanced high oleic oils."
Diliara Iassonova, PhD, innovation director, oils & shortening R&D, at Cargill, discussed formulating options, a brief history of PHOs, comparisons and the challenges of PHO replacements in snack, quick-service restaurant and bakery applications. As requirements changed for trans-fats and became linked with health issues, PHOs were removed from GRAS status, and specialty alternatives were developed. PHO reformulation has resulted in diversification of fats and oils with a new set of highly stable vegetable oils, she said, as well as fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm and palm fractions for various bakery applications. High oleic oils are recognized as the most successful PHO replacement in frying applications, she pointed out.
NuSUN mid-oleic sunflower oil, and HoSUN high-oleic sunflower oil offer oxidative stability, a clean flavor and a longer shelf life, as well as options low in saturated fat, Iassonova added. Though less stable than HoSun, NuSun has the right fatty acid composition for frying in foodservice settings. "HoSUN is the more stable of the two, and works well in snack frying applications that use continuous frying where frying conditions are controlled and hood configurations are optimized," Iassnova explained.
Sunflower oil, whether in high-performance formats or as a commodity oil, only has 10 percent saturated fat, and is therefore a liquid oil. It may be used to prolong shelf life and deliver clean flavor in applications that don’t require the solid fat structure, such as crackers. To be used in bakery applications that do require solid fat, sunflower oil would need to be blended with fully hydrogenated oil, palm or interesterified to gain the structure necessary. Sunflower oil also incorporates antioxidants, which help to maintain its flavor and freshness.
"HoSUN, which is used in fried and baked foods and as a spray oil and doesn’t have the highest antioxidant level, but it’s the combination with high oleic content that makes it stable," emphasized Brian Owens, vice-president of risk management and procurement at Stratas Foods. Owens explained how non-GMO high oleic sunflower oil compares to other non-GMO oils. "It's domestically sourced, sustainable and clean-label, so it's on targeted with consumer trends. Its functionality, stability, flavor and nutritional profile allows it to satisfy several food trends at once. And as supply improves, the price is expected to follow.
Coleman was gracious enough to lead our group through a few sections of his farm loaded with row upon row of blooming sunflowers that mid-August day. In fact at that time North Dakota reported 87 percent of its overall sunflower crop was blooming. Coleman showed us where the seeds are located in the flower's center, under the brown disc of chaff, and explained some of the basics in farming, planting, crop rotation and soil preparation. The farm rotates sunflowers with other crops, such as wheat.
About 30 to 45 days after bloom, the large sunflower heads generally turn brown on the back, Coleman explained, and the seeds are ready for harvest, usually in October. But for our brief visit at the height of the summer, we got a glimpse of a magical site on a North Dakota farm many of us have never seen before: the flourishing sunshine-yellow sunflowers lined up by the thousands, their giant green stalks and daisy-like faces angling toward the sun.