Starting in January 2006, the U.S. government will require food manufacturers to list trans-fat content on nutrition labels. That itty-bitty label addition could have potentially huge ramifications for soybean growers.

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are produced when manufacturers add hydrogen, in a process called hydrogenation, to foods in order to extend shelf life and stabilize flavors.

The new labeling requirement will likely prompt manufacturers to reformulate a broad range of fried foods and snack products that now contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which is high in trans-fat content, to other types of edible oils and fats that are low in trans-fat content.

However, any major switch by U.S. food companies to other fats and oils could potentially cut a healthy portion from the U.S. farmer's bottom line.

“There is a lot at stake here,” says Walter Fehr, Iowa State University (ISU) soybean breeder. “The reality is that food companies may soon take a lot of soybean oil out of their products.”

Food manufacturers, however, must keep pace with consumer demand. After all, the FDA is requiring the new nutrition labels because recent medical research has shown a link between trans-fat consumption and bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), in the bloodstream.

High LDL levels increase the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes and heart attacks, and consumer groups have been pushing to identify food products that cause high LDL levels in people who would otherwise be unaware of these dangers.

The potential market loss to farmers could be great. Soybeans currently account for 81% of the U.S. market for edible fats and oils, Fehr points out, and U.S. soybean production consistently exceeds 73 million acres annually.

“If you're a soybean farmer, the main question you'll want answered is whether food manufacturers will reformulate products with oils you can grow,” says Fehr. “There's not a farmer in the U.S. who is going to be able to grow palm oil, which is one alternative to soy.”

Steve Poole, director of edible programs for the United Soybean Board says, due to the label change, “palm oil use may double in the next couple years from 600 million pounds to 1.2 billion pounds.”

Poole agrees with Fehr that U.S. soybean farmers stand to lose a considerable market share if manufacturers choose to reformulate food products containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil with other sources of fats and oils.

“Soy oil for human consumption in the U.S. is a 17-billion-pound business,” explains Poole. “About 8 billion pounds are hydrogenated each year, and about 2 billion pounds, or about 12% of the total market share, are at risk, due to companies possibly reformulating food products to reduce trans fats.”

Other potential sources of edible oil include canola, corn, cottonseed, olive, palm, sunflower and fish oils. However, soybean farmers might still retain market share by planting new soybean varieties developed by ISU, which are low in linolenic acid. Linolenic acid is an unsaturated fatty acid that causes food to become stale or rancid.

Most soybean varieties contain 7% linolenic acid. The ISU varieties contain only 1%, a level that doesn't require hydrogenation for flavor and shelf stability.

“ISU's low-linolenic soybeans are a good step toward meeting consumer demand for a healthier soy oil,” says Poole. “But the reality is that there probably won't be enough healthy soy-oil solutions by the January 2006 deadline.”

Fehr, one of two ISU soybean breeders who developed the low-linolenic soybean varieties, is more optimistic. He says farmers have planted about 30,000 acres of ISU's heart-healthy varieties in 2004, from which enough seed will be available to plant more than 1 million acres in 2005.

“Farmers should be able to grow enough of these varieties in 2005 to satisfy some of the demand for no-trans oil,” says Fehr. “To make sure that happens, oil processors will need orders from end users so they can afford to contract with farmers for the grain.

“No farmer will grow the soybeans on sheer speculation,” he adds. “They'll eventually have to have a contract.”

Dan Dye, President of Cargill AgHorizons, assures farmers that his company “can provide alternative oils that are low in trans fat” and that “we will work closely with producers to identify value-added opportunities.”

Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., has been developing low linolenic soybeans since 1991. The company is planning to introduce a high-yielding, low-linolenic variety with the Roundup Ready trait soon.

Ron Heck, chairman of the American Soybean Association (ASA), and a farmer from Perry, IA, says ASA has already been contacting food companies and letting them know that improvements and alternatives to partially hydrogenated soybean oil are currently available or will be available shortly.

In addition to low-linolenic soybean varieties from ISU, Heck cites an alternative to the hydrogenation process, called enzyme interesterification, developed by Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM). This new process provides shelf and flavor stability to soybean oil without producing trans fats, he says.

Soybeans are also being developed at Monsanto that would be both trans-fat and saturated-fat free. In addition, Monsanto is working to produce a vegetable oil that would contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are typically found in fish oil. Another company, Dow AgroSciences, has already developed oils from its canola and sunflower varieties “that have virtually no trans fats.”

In the meantime, Clifford Meeuwsen, President of Zeeland Farm Services, Zeeland, MI, says his organization is making headway with food companies that are looking to reformulate their products with the low-linolenic soybean varieties from ISU. He is currently contracting with farmers to grow two different varieties.

“One variety has already been tested and deemed OK by three different companies,” says Meeuwsen. “We're still waiting on the other variety.”

Meeuwsen says soybeans still have the edge over other edible oils. “Soybean oil has a taste and feel that consumers already accept,” he says. “These varieties from ISU help cut costs, because they don't have to be hydrogenated and companies don't have to reformulate to keep the product the same as it was.”

Iowa City, IA, farmer Dave Schmidt, who is growing the low-linolenic soybeans in conjunction with the Iowa Quality Agriculture Guild, anticipates these heart-healthy varieties to soon become localized commodity beans. “Maybe all the soybeans in the Midwest will be low-linolenic five years from now,” he says.

USB's Poole agrees. “These low-linolenic varieties may be the answer,” he says. “They could potentially become the commodity bean of the future.”