Dawn Breaking on the 'NuSun' Era
If the term “NuSun” is not already ingrained in your mind, it soon will be — and with good reason.
NuSun™ is the name which has been given to the mid-range oleic (mono-unsaturated) sunflower oil contained in hybrids which will be grown on about 100,000 U.S. acres in 1998 and an anticipated 500,000 acres the following year. It is expected that NuSun hybrids eventually will be grown on most oil-type sunflower acreage in the United States.
Other than needing to keep NuSun harvested seeds segregated from “regular” oil sunflower seeds during storage and transportation, there are virtually no differences in production requirements between the two types. NuSun hybrids will yield just as well (or better) than standard hybrids, won’t sacrifice oil content, and will possess similar agronomic traits (e.g., disease resistance).
Hybrid sunflower seed suppliers have been developing NuSun varieties, and the major seed crushers have geared up to process and refine the oil. Most of those involved agree the U.S. sunflower industry is poised on the edge of a defining juncture in its history — a juncture which hopefully will secure a brighter future for growers and the trade alike.
What lies behind this major development — and why do industry leaders deem it so important?
The U.S. sunflower industry has, for a number of years, depended heavily upon export markets for most of its oil sales. During market year 1996/97, for example, the United States produced 372,000 metric tons of sunflower oil. Domestic use that year amounted to 77,000 metric tons, while exports totaled 322,000 tons. Preliminary forecasts for 1997/98 project a domestic sun oil usage of 70,000 to 80,000 metric tons and exports of 340,000 to 350,000 tons.
While the export market obviously remains of great importance, such heavy dependence upon it simultaneously places the U.S. industry in the precarious position of having “most of its eggs in one basket.” The diminution of U.S. export subsidy programs, coupled with frequently large sunflower crops in competitor nations (e.g., Argentina, Eastern Europe), makes that situation even more risky for processors and farmers alike.
The germination of NuSun during the latter 1990s is a classic case of fortuitous timing — a scenario where the sunflower industry is in position to fill at least part of a potentially huge market need.
Concurrent with the sunflower industry’s strong desire for more domestic oil sales has been the need of numerous domestic food processors for an alternate vegetable oil for their operations. The growing amount of research and publicity concerning the negative health effects of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids and hydrogenation (see article on page 10) has spurred these companies to seek a vegetable oil which does not carry these attributes — attributes which are being viewed in an increasingly concerned light by many scientists, consumers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The snack food sector — particularly industry giant Frito-Lay — has been very involved in the development of NuSun. This industry alone uses approximately one billion (with a “b”) pounds of vegetable oil each year to make potato chips and other snack foods. Cottonseed oil and hydrogenated soybean oil have been the industry standards for quite some time. But cottonseed has a saturated fat content of around 27 percent, while that of soy oil is in the 15- to 16-percent range— both far too high to qualify for a “low in saturated fat” label designation.
Why wouldn’t “regular” sunflower oil work for snack food processing or other commercial deep-frying applica-tions? And why is the sunflower industry going to the considerable trouble of inserting an entirely new sector — NuSun — into this mix?
Traditional high-linoleic sun oil is a fine frying oil. However, commercial deep-fat frying operations, such as those for potato chips, require a very stable oil whose functionality holds up over extended usage. And now, with the intensified concerns over “bad cholesterol” and its implications for consumer health, food companies want to lower the saturated fat content of their products (without sacrificing taste or texture) so they can claim one gram or less of saturated fat per serving.
NuSun — a mid-range oleic oil — fits these objectives very well. It has a saturated fat content of nine percent, compared to 11 percent for traditional sunflower oil; and, as noted previously, it is likewise lower than soybean oil and much lower than cottonseed oil in this respect. NuSun’s oleic content is between 55-70 percent, meaning it’s a very stable oil and acceptable to the industry. Plus, it does not need to be hydrogenated.
Over the past couple years, Frito-Lay (which manufactures potato chips in 46 of its 50 U.S. plants) has initiated a series of taste and functionality tests involving NuSun. The third in this series will take place in early 1998, with the fourth and most extensive testing phase likely to occur in early 1999. Thus far, the testing results have been very encouraging.
Samples of NuSun also have been sent to a number of other large U.S. food manufacturers, notes Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association (NSA). “All of the results and comments we’ve received back have been positive,” he indicates.
NSA has worked extensively with sunflower seed suppliers and processors on the development of NuSun, and Kleingartner says there’s a strong industry consensus regarding the importance and promise of the NuSun campaign. “We love the export market, but this year we are going to be about 80- to 85-percent export dominant,” he explains. “That’s absolutely too heavy for the long-term.” In years when competing exporters have large crops, price pressure becomes very intense — and reverberates back to the producer level, Kleingartner emphasizes.
One of NuSun’s selling points is that it will be priced as a “commodity” oil, not as a “premium” oil (which historically has been a key reason why regular high-linoleic sunflower oil has not made more inroads domestically). But Kleingartner is optimistic there may be room for domestic users to pay a slight premium for NuSun. Also, the fact that it needs no hydrogenation will save about two cents per pound in refining costs, so the industry should realize a benefit from that as well.
And what will happen to the traditional high-linoleic sunflower oil and the hybrids which produce that type of oil?
No one knows for certain, of course, but the marketplace obviously will be the determinant of its future. “Our plan is that most of the acres would eventually convert over to NuSun,” Kleingartner remarks. “But certainly there is a role for high-linoleic, just as there’ll continue to be a role for high-oleic sunflower.
“There are a lot of questions regarding the price of NuSun,” he adds. “Presently, there are a variety of bids to the producer for 1998 production contracts. The market for the oil cannot be determined until reasonable supplies are available to test the market. There should be some savings in hydrogenation costs, and we expect that the oil will generate demand because of its functionality. We are confident NuSun will not sell for less than existing sun oil, [but] no one can predetermine its price at this early point.” — Don Lilleboe
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