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A NuSun Oil Primer

Thursday, January 1, 1998
filed under: Utilization/Trade: NuSun

What’s all this discussion of “saturated fats,” “trans-fatty acids,” “hydrogen-ation,” “high-linoleic / mid-oleic” . . . and why has it all come together during the latter 1990s to stimulate a major shift in the direction of the U.S. sunflower industry?

At the core of the issue is a six-letter word: health. Depending upon their respective fatty acid compositions, fats and oils are considered either more or less healthy for those who consume them — particularly in terms of their effect on blood cholesterol and, correspondingly, one’s risk for heart disease.

Fatty acids, which are found at varying concentrations in all the fats and oils we consume, are among the essential “fuels” which body cells burn for energy. Whether a fat is solid or liquid — and that fat’s degree of stability — is determined by the type of fatty acid which predominates. For example, foods like butter, lard or coconut oil contain higher levels of saturated fats, while vegetable oils like sunflower, corn or soybean typically have higher levels of unsaturated fatty acids.

“Trans-fats” are the unsaturated fatty acids formed when vegetable oils are processed and converted into a more-stable liquid or semi-solid form (e.g., margarines or shortenings). The process used to accomplish this is called “hydrogenation.”

Trans-fatty acids and hydrogenation have become the focus of much food industry and consumer attention in recent years, since studies have shown that trans-fatty acids created via the hydrogenation process tend to increase the level of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower the level of HDL (good cholesterol). It appears the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon require foods to be labeled as to whether they have been hydrogenated — and, if so, the makeup of their trans-fatty composition. That designation would carry negative connotations for food companies and their health-conscious customers.

Sunflower oil contains five types of fatty acids: linoleic, oleic, linolenic, palmitic and stearic. The last two — palmitic and stearic — are “saturated” fatty acids and are found in much higher concentrations in fats like butter or tallow than in a veg oil like sunflower. “Linolenic” (not “linoleic”) concentrations are very low in sunflower oil, but significantly higher in soybean and canola oils. This fatty acid breaks down (i.e., oxidizes) quickly, so oils with more than two-percent linolenic content tend to develop an off-flavor over time unless they are at least partially hydrogenated.

The sunflower oil we have all become accustomed to over the past few decades is high in “linoleic” acid (between 66 to 72 percent, on average) and lower in “oleic” (in the neighborhood of 17 to 21 percent). Linoleic, oleic and linolenic are all considered to be “unsaturated” fatty acids; however, oleic is a “monounsaturate” while linoleic is a “polyunsaturate.”

An oil that is higher in oleic acid will maintain its stability at high temperatures over a longer period of time. That’s why a high-oleic sunflower oil is more suitable for commercial deep-fat frying operations (and for use as an industrial lubricant) than is a sun oil high in linoleic acid.

High-oleic sunflower, grown under contract, is estimated to currently account for 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. oil sunflower crop. These varieties will produce an oil with oleic content of 80 percent or more.

Though it’s very suitable for applica-tions within the snack food industry (and does not require hydrogen-ation), the main obstacle to high-oleic sunflower oil’s expansion in the marketplace has been its price. Historically, it has sold at a significant premium to the industry standard, cottonseed oil.

Mid-oleic sunflower oil — i.e., NuSun — is designed to offer the “best of all worlds” to major billion-pound-per-year vegetable oil markets such as the snack food industry, hotel/restaurant sector and institutional users. It is acceptably low in saturated fat; it will be very suitable for commercial deep-fat frying purposes (without hydrogen-ation); and, it is designed to be affordably priced. —Don Lilleboe
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