Trans fat could be a thing of the past in soybean oil.

Soybeans developed by University of Missouri researchers hold promise to reduce unhealthy fatty acids in soybean oil, which comprises more than 70% of the food oil used in the U.S.

Grover Shannon, a professor of soybean genetics and breeding with the MU Delta Research Center, held the key to healthier food in the soybean pod between his fingers.

“It’s like any regular soybean, but inside this pod are seeds that are unique because they contain 80% oleic acid,” Shannon says. “They will be in demand by consumers because they will be healthier and more functional for a lot of foods.”

Oleic acid – a monounsaturated fat – replaces unhealthy saturated fats in soybeans and also eliminates the need to hydrogenate. Hydrogenation extends the shelf life of soybean oil but creates trans fats, which are proven to be unhealthy for the heart.

“We’ve been able to create an oil profile that’s just like olive oil,” says Kristin Bilyeu, a molecular biologist with the USDAAgriculture Research Service. “That’s important because olive oil seems to have healthy oil characteristics and the soybean oil we’ve made has the same characteristics.”

Traditional soybeans contain about 20% oleic acid, but the new variety increases that to almost 80%. The monounsaturated fat doesn’t carry the negative heart health risks of the saturated fat, which the new variety decreases in the oil by 25%. It also remains stable at high temperatures – something traditional soybean oil cannot do without hydrogenation.

This affects consumers who might not even realize how much soybean oil is in their everyday diet. French fries are fried in it, cookies are baked with it and it is a common component of vegetable oil bought in stores.

“Soybean oil is a hidden ingredient in lots of processed foods and accounts for many calories of the typical American diet,” Bilyeu says. “So if we can find a way to improve the health, stability and potentially the economics of a food ingredient without people having to make any changes to their lives, we can improve the health of all consumers without any effort on their part.”

A movement away from trans fat ramped up in 2003 when the Food and Drug Administration mandated that food companies label its use by 2006. New York City banned the use of trans fat in restaurants in 2006 and food companies scrambled to find alternatives.

High oleic acid content in soybeans remained elusive for soybean scientists for more than 30 years, according to Shannon.

Through traditional soybean breeding techniques, Shannon crossed two varieties with elevated oleic acid content – 30% and 40%, respectively – to create a variety with 80% oleic acid.

Bilyeu’s lab took Shannon’s soybeans to identify the exact gene that is needed for this variety and add genetic markers to make it easier to breed this trait into a high-yielding variety. Shannon is now crossing varieties at the Delta Center in the Bootheel and in off-season nurseries in Costa Rica.

Shannon says a conventional variety with high oleic acid could hit the market in about three years.

“It would be the desire of all oil seed processors for farmers to grow high-oleic beans, and our goal now is to put the high-oleic trait into high-yielding soybeans that a farmer can have confidence in and that will likely bring a premium,” Shannon says. “We think it will be fairly easy to get this trait into high-yielding varieties that farmers can grow all the way from the Mississippi Delta up to Minnesota.”

Funding for this research came in part from the United Soybean Board and the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council with farmer-supported checkoff money.

The research was published this month in BMC Plant Biology.