COLUMBIA — Kristin Bilyeu has been cozy with soybeans ever since she was a child. When she was growing up in St. Charles, her father would drive her around and quiz her on different crops in the fields. It was a pretty easy game.
“I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable, but I knew if it wasn’t corn, which was pretty obvious, it almost had to be soybeans,” Bilyeu said.
Soybeans still surround the 41-year-old MU professor, but now they’re in her lab in Columbia. She researches the fuzzy, green pods for the Agricultural Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working to develop a more perfect soybean using molecular genetics. And that perfect soybean may be on the horizon.
Bilyeu and Grover Shannon, a soybean breeder at MU’s Delta Center in Portageville, led a research team that used traditional crossbreeding methods to create a soybean with better fat. This soybean, called high-oleic, has oil with a profile similar to olive oil, and is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, Bilyeu said.
The discovery of naturally-occurring genes for the trait has been called a scientific breakthrough, but it isn’t the only game in town. Monsanto, Pioneer and other biotechnology companies have been working on the problem since the 1990s, and successfully produced genetically modified soybeans with the same trait. The biotech beans are in the FDA’s regulatory pipeline, and will enter commercial markets in the coming years.
The buzz means there’s a good chance these new soybeans could solve a problem that’s been around for decades.
The soybean oil dilemma
Soybean oil has many advantages. It’s cheap and plentiful. According to the USDA, Americans planted 77 million acres of soybeans in 2009 and consumed more than 8 million tons of soybean oil the year before. Soybeans account for 90 percent of U.S. oilseed production. It also has an excellent flavor profile.
“You want a cooking oil to carry the natural flavors in your product, and that's what makes soybean oil so wonderful. It's a subtly flavored oil that accentuates and carries forward your product’s flavor,” said Kevin Fritsche, a nutrition and fatty acid expert at MU. “It allows you as a food scientist or a manufacturer to generate products with the good flavor you've intended.”
The disadvantages of soybean oil, however, are that it’s unstable at high temperatures and can’t be used for baking and frying. Using normal soybean oil to make crackers, Fritsche said, would produce a slimy product that no one would buy. It also has a short shelf-life.
To be useful in commercial cooking, processors bubbled hydrogen through liquid soybean oil to create a semisolid that was stable and lasted longer. In its heyday, partially hydrogenated soybean oil was lauded as a healthy replacement for animal fats like lard and butter. For decades, it put the fry in French fries, the crisp in potato chips, the snap in gingersnaps.
One word changed everything: trans fats. Trans fats became a poster child for unhealthy, processed food since studies linked them to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. A 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that eliminating trans fats from American diets might prevent between 72,000 and 228,000 cases of coronary heart disease. In 2006 the Food and Drug Administration mandated the labeling of trans fats on nutrition labels, and some cities, including New York City, began banning trans fats.
The food industry scrambled to find a new cooking oil, and according to Soy Stats, the amount of soybean oil used for baking and frying dropped 20 percent from 1999 to 2009.
Finding a good substitute hasn’t been easy, Fritsche said, since alternatives like tropical oils and other options haven’t been fully studied. By switching, we might be trading one bad thing for another. Plus, the demand is tremendous.
“It’s hard to imagine there are sufficient tropical oils — we’re talking about such huge scales of vegetable oil used in our food supply,” Fritsche said.
Companies created an emergency substitute after the trans fat scare. By lowering another fatty acid known as linolenic acid in soybeans, researchers developed “low-lin” soybeans, which eliminated trans fats. Companies like KFC Corp. and Kelloggs switched.
But low-lin beans weren’t the final answer. Bilyeu said the trait didn't become part of the commodity soybean, but remained in limited markets. Joe Cornelius, vice president of food nutrition business development at Monsanto, said it was a placeholder for a much healthier soybean.
That superior soybean is on the horizon. According to researchers who have run tests, the new high-oleic bean has a healthier fat profile as well as being trans fat free and highly functional in commercial cooking.
Researchers accomplished the new soybean using different methods.
At MU Bilyeu and Shannon used traditional crossbreeding. They discovered two genes that controlled the high-oleic trait, and successfully bred it into plants.
Shannon, who has developed more than 70 varieties of soybean, said the naturally occurring genes for the new soybean is the best discovery he’s had in his lifetime.
“High-oleic was a big breakthrough for us. A lot of people have been in pursuit of it for at least 30 years,” Shannon said. “This could have a major impact, and the nice thing about it is there are other genes that could be useful in soybeans that we haven’t even discovered. We’re scratching the tip of the iceberg.”
Currently, the MU team is trying to breed the trait into high-yielding lines of soybeans. Bilyeu said she expected the earliest it could hit the market would be in three years. Because the genes are naturally occurring, the trait can bypass an expensive and time-consuming FDA regulatory approval process that genetically modified traits need to go through.
Other researchers at companies like Monsanto and Pioneer achieved the trait using biotechnology.
Monsanto’s high-oleic soybean is called Vistive Gold, and is currently making its way through the FDA’s regulatory pipeline for biotech products. Cornelius said Vistive Gold has reached nutritional milestones the food industry has asked for, including healthier amounts of five different fatty acids, which each have a nutritional impact.
“This has been a collaborative process with the food supply chain. Growers and processors, food companies, manufacturers, and the nutrition and health community have all had an intimate role in guiding the development of this technology,” Cornelius said. “A decade ago, the industry asked us, ‘Where are the consumer traits? And how can biotech provide consumer benefits?’ This is an example of how biotech is able to do that.”
Pioneer’s high-oleic soybean, Plenish, has already been approved for cultivation in the United States, but the soybeans will have a limited rollout over the next few years while Pioneer waits for more overseas approvals before fully launching the product.
The future of the soybean
Agronomic traits like herbicide or drought resistance have traditionally benefited farmers. But low-lin and high-oleic oil has set the stage for future soybean research that more directly impacts consumers.
“We’re coming to a point where we have output traits that affect food and health,” said Mark Winkle, senior director of domestic programs for the United Soybean Board. “That’s important. Now consumers are also saying it’s a good thing that soybeans are improving.”
Kerry Clark, a soybean breeder at MU, said modifying fatty acids has been the biggest step so far in the consumer direction. The next leap forward could lie in a peptide found in soybeans called lunasin, which some studies have identified as helpful in fighting cancer.
Shannon listed removing allergens and finding better tasting beans as areas for future development.
But will these helpful traits find their way to consumers?
Bilyeu hopes to see commodity soybeans change, but in the future there may be a splintering of the market.
Clark said the future isn’t a single, improved commodity bean, but the growth of niche markets for specific uses.
Soybeans "will never have all these characteristics together," she said. "They've been trying to make a perfect bean, but it would never become a real variety because it won’t yield."
Winkle also sees diversification of the market as new traits are discovered.
“If you have one unique attribute, you’ll probably have an impact on another trait, and here’s a classic example. With the new high oleic, there’s a reduction in saturates. We’d say it's a good thing. But there’s also the reduction of omega-3s, so part of the market is excited and part of the market will say wait a minute,” Winkle said. “If you think about high-oleic and omega-3 soybeans, you could have two or three different types, and they each may have a significant part of our total acres.”
Whatever happens, the real goal could be something easy for consumers, Bilyeu said.
“This should be an option that consumers might not even have to choose," Bilyeu said. "It might just ripple through the food system, so that your potato chips or the muffin that you buy at a coffee shop just might be a little better for you."