Concerned with the health issues associated with consuming food cooked in partially hydrogenated oil, the federal government recently announced it would restrict use of the commonly-used oil. The development could be a major opportunity for a product developed by University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture researchers.

“The situation is that the FDA has proposed a ban on partially hydrogenated fats,” says Andrew Proctor, professor of food science. “The hydrogenation process commonly used to make, say, shortening, will not be used anymore if the proposed ban is adopted -- at least not widely. That announcement was made at the end of 2013.”

Although Proctor and colleagues’ research on soy oil rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) has been ongoing for a number of years, he admits the timing of the FDA’s announcement could prove fortuitous. “It’s coincidental but certainly means there will be a void that our work might fill.”

The opportunity -- pushed forward through years of funding by the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board -- became especially compelling in summer of 2013. “That’s when we found our oil can be used to make margarine without hydrogenation,” says Proctor. “In other words, the CLA-rich oil seemed to have some hard fat properties that seemed to be produced previously only under hydrogenation.”

At that point, Proctor needed to find someone willing to help ramp up commercialization of the CLA-rich oil. Enter Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland Foods.

“We’re currently working with Riceland on this under a collaborative agreement and research. Using our research on CLA-rich oil along with Riceland’s decades-long experience in conventional processing we want to find the best way to commercialize this. We’re ready for a commercial phase.”

The CLA-rich oil was a long time in coming.

“We’ve been working on CLA-rich oil for at least six years. We’ve changed the technology a lot over that time. Until about 18 months ago, we were using light and iodine in the oil. Once we got an understanding of how to do that, a colleague did some animal studies with the oil.”

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The studies produced some very interesting results. “He found that in obese lab rats fed the oil in a regular diet reduced total cholesterol levels by 50 percent and LDL (bad cholesterol) by 50 percent. There was also evidence that it switched on a gene related to fat-burning although we didn’t see weight loss over the course of the short study.”

The dramatic reduction in cholesterol was “very exciting,” says Proctor. “Along with that was an anti-diabetes indicator. We do know that this oil can have health benefits.”

Commercialization

One thing Proctor and colleagues had to address was that using iodine to make the oil was unlike anything being done in commercial processing. “So, we decided to change that to more closely approximate what was being done commercially.

“To accomplish that we simulated a deodorization system. It has since become evident that we should use equipment currently dedicated to hydrogenation. We’ll just adapt it to our purposes.”

Does the CLA-rich oil cook/fry things up like oils everyone is used to?

“Oh, yes,” says Proctor. “We’ve published work on how it can be used to make potato chips. We’ve already made margarine from it and are currently looking at making shortening. That study will be completed this summer.”

The new oil can be used like any other soy-based product. “It’s just a thicker, more viscous oil. To date, it seems like it acts like hydrogenated oil much more than oils that haven’t been through this process.”

What size might the market for CLA-rich oil be?

“I’m not an economist but I know that partially hydrogenated fat is a massive market. The potential for this oil is huge. Soy oil is the second-most used oil in the world next to palm oil.”

Asked about his next steps, Proctor says that very broadly, “We understand the science and can make the product in the laboratory. What we must now do is address the issues of scale-up and commercial production.

“That’s where Riceland Foods come in. They’ve certainly got plenty of experience in that. Working with their experts should get us to where we want to be fairly quickly.

“We’re working with typical soybean oil from regular varieties. This is nothing to do with the high oleic or high linoleic side of things.”

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Proctor says the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board deserves special praise. “They deserve to be highlighted for loyalty, having vision and the willingness to fund the lion’s share of our research. They understood what we were trying to do from the beginning and jumped in six or seven years ago and have continuously funded us.

“In fact, I just received word that the board would continue its funding of this collaborative work with Riceland. We’ve also happily gotten grants from the USDA and the Arkansas Bioscience Institute.”