Low-linolenic soybeans take center stage

Here's a feel good story for every soybean farmer who ever wondered if his or her checkoff money was being spent wisely.

As you know, food companies everywhere are scrambling to lower trans fats in their products. That's because as of January 1, 2006, a new FDA labeling law went into effect that forced companies to explain levels of trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol in food products.

Naturally, food company execs have nightmares about consumers who actually look at those labels. So they want to get those numbers down - fast.

This situation might cause a panic among soybean growers. After all, trans fats occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable (soy) oil - a process called hydrogenation. They do this to increase shelf life and flavor stability. They're turning oil into shortening. Think: creamy goodness inside an oreo cookie.

Consumption of trans fat and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Here come those health-conscious consumers and the food exec nightmares.

But here is a case where the soybean industry had its ear to the ground and was able to look far enough ahead to make major changes to keep market share and help food companies address consumer concerns.

"We began planning for this in earnest in 1998, with ongoing research to create the basis for low-linolenic and mid and higher linolenic product oil," says John Becherer, Chief Executive Officer for the United Soybean Board, the group charged with wisely spending a $27 million soybean checkoff budget. I talked to Becherer at USB headquarters in St. Louis last week.

"The labeling rules started January 2006, but we knew food companies were working to eliminate soy oil that was partially hydrogenated from their product lines," he says.

Enter low-linolenic soybeans

Low-linolenic acid beans, introduced three years ago, will reduce the need for partial hydrogenation of soybean oil, helping food companies reduce the presence of trans fats in their products.

According to Becherer, the United States uses about 17 billion pounds of soy oil for food uses - frying, baking, fast food, or salad oil on grocery shelves. About 2 billion pounds are at immediate risk with the trans fat issue - we'd lose that 2 billion pound market if we don't change the nature of that oil.

"When Kellogg announced it would source low-lin soy oil, it really created reaassurances for farmers that this was real and that there was a market for that product," says John Becherer, CEO at United Soybean Board.

Thanks to the backing of food companies like Kellogg and hefty premiums to contract growers, at least 750,000 acres of low-lin soybeans will be planted this spring across the United States. Many more will go into the ground next year.

"By 2007 we should have over 1 billion pounds of oil available from low-lin," Becherer says. "It takes a long time in research, but we were lucky enough to know this in advance. Having the checkoff avilalable to do the research allowed us to worked with the seed industry and tech companies. We were able to put these oils into the marketplace."

More traits in the pipeline

More good news: Low-lin is just one of several health-oriented traits in the soybean research pipeline. "We're also looking to fill other market niches, such as mid-oleic, 50% oleic acid, a 3- billion pound market," says Becherer. "That fills another need. Now you're looking at 5 of the 17-billion pound market."

The next big hurdle facing the food industry is saturated fats. Becherer says the industry is developing a low saturated fat oil made from soybeans as we speak. No wonder he's confident about the future.

"We're putting products out there and meeting consumer needs in the future," he says. "I would hope the food industry understands that we're looking at their needs for the long run."

Next: What's it like growing low-lin soybeans? I'll share with you a visit I had with a Michigan grower who is doing just that.

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