In 2015, the FDA declared that partially hydrogenated oils were no longer “generally recognized as safe” due to increased risk of heart disease. Food manufacturers were ordered to phase out the use of artificial trans fats by June of 2018.

Seed breeders had already accelerated work on improving cooking oils – soy, sunflower and canola among them - nearly 10 years earlier when the federal government began requiring trans fats to be listed on food nutrition labels.

Kristin Bilyeu, molecular biologist, USDA Agricultural Research Service: “At the same time that the oil value was declining because of all of these issues, the meal value was increasing. So the overall value of the soybean has been at a pretty good level. It’s sort of a lost value. They didn’t recognize that they got dinged.”

Food use of soybean oil fell 20 percent between 2004 – the year after the labeling rule was finalized - and 2011. However, soy oil remains the most widely used cooking oil in the country.

For decades, food processors used a variety of partially hydrogenated cooking oils in the creation of meals and snacks. The oils are modified with hydrogen gas to increase shelf-life and allow for use at higher cooking temperatures.

Millions have been invested in the hunt for new oil seed varieties – both naturally occurring and genetically engineered – that might display that elusive mix of high heat stability, long shelf life, neutral taste, and improved health benefits.

Many of those researching soybeans, like USDA molecular biologist Kristin Bilyeu, focused in on a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid.

Kristin Bilyeu, molecular biologist, USDA Agricultural Research Service: “So we go from about 20 or 30 percent oleic acid to about 80 percent oleic acid. So we’ve shifted almost all of the fatty acids into this heart healthy monounsaturated fatty acid… It’s quite similar to how olive oil’s natural profile is.”

Bilyeu worked with University of Missouri soybean scientists who found a naturally occurring mutation that may solve the equation. Others have pinpointed their own versions, and have spent recent years improving yields.

Schillinger Genetics, an Iowa-based company that focuses on non-genetically modified products, gained the right to sell the University of Missouri high oleic seed commercially under the label Emerge.

John Schillinger, Schillinger Genetics president and primary owner: “I think it’s an evolution of change that’s going on all around us. And a lot of it starts at the consumer level.”

Schillinger acknowledges the entire marketplace needs to be nurtured which will involve getting farmers, soybean crushers and oil distillers on board.

John Schillinger, Schillinger Genetics president and primary owner: “That differentiating value is hard to come up with unless you’ve got someone with an inquisitive mind on the other side in the laboratories looking at quality from the standpoint of shelf life, or the use in cooking french fries or things like that. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

As scientists at the University of Missouri were at work, private groups were pursing the same goal. DuPont Pioneer developed and began marketing the Plenish brand of high oleic soybeans while Monsanto created Vistive Gold.

The industry is faced with convincing farmers to plant new seeds that must be kept separate from their conventional counterparts.  For now, seed companies are paying premiums.

John Schillinger, Schillinger Genetics president and primary owner: “The grain prices were very high. Now they are coming down so it’s a little different story.”

So far, the nation’s farmers are growing less than a million acres of the new soybeans. The United Soybean Board, which has invested $60 million in high oleic research since 2012, has a goal of seeing 18 million acres planted by 2023.

DuPont Pioneer, which began large-scale production in Ohio and Indiana six years ago, has been recruiting elevators and soybean crushing facilities farther west. AGP’s crushing plant in Hastings, Nebraska, stepped forward to take Plenish soybeans for the 2016 and 2017 growing seasons.

Tony Collins, Pioneer sales representative: For us, it’s just getting the product out on the volume of acres that an end user like AGP needs. Once that happens, then they can go out and sell the oil…They lowered the premium this year but the guys that were around the crush plant already delivering found the 20-cent premium was well worth it.”

The Ablott family of Inwood, Nebraska, located just a half dozen miles away, was among those who continued growing Plenish in 2017 even after the initial year’s 40-cent premium was cut in half. The low transportation costs were key in their decision making process.

Sean Ablott, Inland, Neb.: “Obviously with new programs, new products, there is always some skepticism, but you know there was some premium involved and the logistics made it somewhat attractive… You have to take a little more care than you would with normal commodity beans as far as cross contamination …but really not a big deal.”

The road to widespread acceptance still has a few bumps. AGP – Hastings has changed course and will no longer accept the beans in 2018 because of the struggle to market the still unfamiliar oil.

Bilyeu acknowledges there is more to be done as federal deadlines loom.

Kristin Bilyeu, molecular biologist, USDA Agricultural Research Service: “The pull is not coming from the farmers because they are an intermediate player in the health of consumers….The solution to the trans fat problem could be high oleic soybean oil. That’s a solution that would benefit probably all Americans but those Americans shouldn’t have to pay more for that benefit. And then we have to work backward: if no one will pay more for a health benefit, how do we pull it through the marketplace, how do we make sure that each player feels rewarded for their part in the chain? And I think an economist is better suited to answer that than a molecular biologist.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz,