Food and Agriculture: The Search for New and Improved Oils

Remarks by David Stark, Vice President, Consumer Traits, Monsanto Company, at International Corporate Chefs Association Meeting, July, 2007

Consumer concerns about health coupled with an increasing number of local bans targeted at foodservice establishments are creating a growing demand for the elimination of trans fats. Those concerns, in turn, are driving changes in how food is processed by restaurants and food companies and in particular what kinds of oils are used for a wide variety of food preparation techniques. The search for new and improved oils is eventually arriving at the farmer’s field. The food and agriculture industries must work together to make improved oils a viable way to eliminate trans fat.

Monsanto, as a company devoted 100 percent to agriculture, is in the forefront of developing new products and technologies. Our R&D platform is focused on improving yields for farmers; practices and technologies that make agriculture more sustainable and protective of the environment; and products that provide consumers with better, more healthful food.

Trans fat has become a major issue in the U.S. For years, saturated fat in food has been considered “bad” – raising health concerns among medical practitioners and consumers alike. New York City’s recent ban of trans fats in restaurants is only one of many examples of how the issue is developing politically. Similar actions have occurred in Britain, Denmark, Canada, Taiwan and Korea, among many others. To reformulate or not is no longer the question.

Partially hydrogenated soybean oil is considered the main culprit, but it’s difficult to replace given its significant supply base, low cost and favorable flavor profile relative to many other oils.  Soybean oil represents 65 percent of the more than 28-billion-pounds of edible oils consumed in the U.S. each year, with about half of this being hydrogenated to some extent. The main reason soybean oil is hydrogenated is because it’s unstable for many food uses. Hydrogenation provides the needed stability but also creates most of the trans fat in our diet.

The solution is to find a way to make soybean oil more naturally stable – or, a better bean. Monsanto’s Vistive low linolenic soybeans is an example. Developed through traditional breeding techniques, Vistive soybeans produce oil that is optimized for baking and frying, with a similar performance to creamy partially hydrogenated soy oil. Vistive has already been adopted by KFC, Kellogg’s and Ventura Foods.  Monsanto’s hope is that Vistive soybean oil will play a similar role in the food supply as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, namely, readily available, cost effective and with a taste people prefer, but without the trans fat.

In Europe, Vistive high oleic, low linolenic rapeseed or canola is beginning to meet the growing demand for tans-fat-free oil. It produces a superior frying oil tailored for European tastes.Another promising development, one especially important to restaurants, is high stearate soybean oil, which offers the properties of margarines and shortenings without hydrogenation. Traditionally, margarines and shortenings are made from heavily hydrogenated oils like soybean, and contain high levels of trans fat. Since many foods require the functionality of a margarine or shortening, especially baked foods, having trans-free alternatives that still allow a quality product to be produced is critical. One alternative is palm oil, but palm is 51 percent saturated fat and many nutritionists are concerned that trading trans for palm is just trading one bad fat for another. High stearate soybean oil, which should be available in the next couple years, provides the needed functionality without the trans fat. Further, stearate is a saturated fat that has been shown not to raise cholesterol, so it is a healthier option than other high saturated fat oils like palm.The challenge in developing significant quantities of alternative oils is linking supply and demand. Alternative oils are more expensive to produce, so the supply chain won’t produce more than they think they can sell. Monsanto is committed to helping drive down some of the extra costs associated with these new oils, including improving the performance and ease of use on the farm and working with oil refiners to identify efficiencies in their operations. Much progress has been made and today 1.5M acres of Vistive™ soybeans are in production. However, much more is needed before the volume of partially hydrogenated oil can be fully replaced. And this isn’t a “just-in-time” supply operation. A decision made today to use Vistive soybeans requires about 18 months of lead time – to develop the seed supply for farmers and demonstrate on-farm success and build supply credibility for food processors. Processors have to know the supply will be there when a decision is made to adopt, and farmers want to know that the demand will be there when they make the decision to plant.This critical need to bridge supply and demand requires suppliers, processors and the food industry in general to work together. Organizations like the International Corporate Chefs Association have a critical role to play in helping their members rethink how they buy their oil – and telling their suppliers they want products like Vistive.