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.
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.