MU researcher develops way to process soybean with no trans fats

Sunday, April 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The processed food industry may soon be seeing a healthier, soybean-based alternative to trans fats, based on the research of MU plant sciences professor Grover Shannon.

Shannon has developed a method of breeding soybeans with the naturally occurring genes of high oleic acid. 

Right now, a partial-hydrogenation process is required to stabilize the oil from soybeans and other plants for use in processed food. Hydrogenation is a chemical reaction that adds hydrogen to a compound.

Last November, the FDA tentatively determined that foods containing partially hydrogenated oils are not safe for consumption, due to the trans fats content that causes heart disease.

The FDA is now going through an additional review process. If the findings are confirmed, food manufacturers will no longer be permitted to sell products containing partially hydrogenated oil.

Enter the high oleic acid soybean. Fat can be extracted from these carefully bred soybeans without hydrogenation, meaning the resulting soybean oil will be free of the unhealthy fat.

Shannon partnered with Kristen Bilyeu, a professor in the plant sciences department and former molecular geneticist, to find the high oleic acid trait in soybeans. The discovery is one that soybean researchers have been searching for since the 1980s. 

“We combined two genes with 35 percent and 30 percent respective oleic acid content,” Shannon said. “We got a super increase in oleic acid for 80 percent content.”

Shannon said that oleic acid normally occurs at a rate of about 23 percent in soybeans.

The discovery will not only impact the health of consumers, but also help soybean farmers in Missouri and across the nation who have lost market share due to the growing health concerns about trans fats.

Using off-season nurseries in Costa Rica, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, Shannon’s team is testing the yield of seeds as quickly as it can. Shannon said that in order for farmers to begin planting the high oleic seeds, they must equal the yield of the existing seeds.

“So far, the yield seems to be looking better every year,” Shannon said. 

At 5 billion acres, Missouri has the eighth largest soybean crop in the nation.

Will Spargo, chairman of the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, said he expects the repurposed soybeans to sell at a higher price per bushel, so long as they live up to yield expectations.

“We’re thinking that the soybean industry will recapture lost market share,” he said. “This will make soybeans more valuable and provide more profit back to farmers, and provide better food for consumers.”

Spargo said the seeds may be distributed to farmers in limited quantities by next year for trials to test their yield.

At present, farmers can choose to grow soybeans with or without the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that make the plants more resistant to disease, harsh weather conditions and chemicals.

Non-GMO seeds with naturally occurring genes are in growing demand because of the organic preferences of American and international consumers, especially in European countries where there are strict regulations on genetically modified foods.

Farmers, who grow soybeans with GMOs, purchase their seeds from agriculture companies such as Monsanto and DuPont. With Monsanto's permission, Shannon said he plans to develop seeds for GMO soybeans like Monsanto's popular herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready Soybeans.

Monsanto has already spent approximately $100 million developing a high oleic trait that does not occur naturally in its Roundup Ready varieties. The patent for Monsanto's primary variety, Roundup Ready 1, expires in 2015.

At the end of the year, Shannon's team will be able to develop a product for Roundup Ready 1 without needing Monsanto's permission, which he says will likely half the price of the high oleic GMO seeds.

This flexibility means that the soybean industry has high hopes for the new breed. The United Soybean Board recently invested $60 million into research and marketing over the next five years, which Shannon said puts his research team under the gun.

"We're still in its infancy, we're still moving forward and still finding out things every day," Shannon said.

"If it takes off, it'll be a huge thing. It'll have a huge impact on not only growers but also consumers."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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