Consumer Trends | April 2012 | By Jordan Melnick

New Soy Oil: Delivering Health, Taste

High oleic soybean oil should help restaurants offer customers menu items that meet the demand for better nutrition and more taste.

Quick-serve businesses are facing thin margins and a growing need to offer healthier fare. A new oil product in development could help them tackle both issues head-on.

High oleic soybean oil is unhydrogenated, zero-trans-fat oil that is being developed by scientists through soy breeding. It is longer lasting, more stable, and healthier than conventional hydrogenated oils that restaurants use, according to companies working to bring the oil to market and insiders in the restaurant industry who have tested out the new product. The oil also imparts less unwanted flavor to fried foods and does not give off as strong a smell as other oils during cooking.

To develop high oleic soybean oil, scientists are using biotechnology tools to “silence” a gene in the endogenous fatty acid pathway of soybean seeds, according to a study commissioned by Pioneer, one of the companies developing the oil. Suppression of this gene leads to substantially increased levels of oleic acid and, in turn, lower levels of saturated fatty acid content than conventional soybean oil.

What this means to restaurant operators, says scientist Susan Knowlton, is that their oil is more stable and takes longer to go rancid during frying. It is also slower to build up on restaurant equipment.

Before the Food and Drug Administration began regulating trans fats in the U.S. in 2006, oil stability was not an issue for restaurants, Knowlton says.

“When the trans fat labeling hit … a lot of foodservice and food manufacturing companies had to rush very quickly [away from] hydrogenated oils, either because of mandates in their locales or because they didn’t want to have trans fat content on their labels,” she says. “They looked around really quickly for replacements of what they had used for years—hydrogenated soybean oil—and in many cases went to oils that they are not all that happy with.”

High oleic soybean oil represents an ongoing attempt to address that dissatisfaction. Knowlton, who is a senior research manager at DuPont, the umbrella company that owns Pioneer, says several “major fast food chains” are testing the oil.

One of these chains is Pei Wei Asian Diner, a fast-casual concept owned by P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Eric Justice (pictured), vice president of culinary operations at Pei Wei, recently tested high-oleic soybean oil for frying in a live restaurant setting and came away with a positive reaction.

“I like the fact that it felt like we got a little less oil pickup in the products,” Justice says. “They weren’t eating quite as heavy. The color stayed truer a little bit longer, and the negative oil, or flavor that you tend to get as oil ages, didn’t seem as apparent.”

Justice says he got between 30 percent and 40 percent longer life out of the oil compared with the conventional soybean oil that the chain uses in hundreds of locations across the country. Even though high oleic soybean oil is about 15 percent more expensive than conventional soybean oil, this could mean significant savings for the chain, which uses roughly 25 million pounds of oil per year.

Justice also says that because the high oleic soybean oil does not saturate food during the frying process as much as conventional soybean oil, it could allow the chain to reduce calories while increasing flavor.

“The more product you can cook in oil without the oil actually retaining in the product, [the] more flavor,” Justice says, “because oil is a flavor retractor. It coats your palate.”

Justice adds that the health component of the high oleic soybean oil is significant. “Typical soybean oil is about 120 calories per a tablespoon,” he says. “So if you pick up even two teaspoons less, you’re 80 calories lighter by doing nothing else.”

This combination—fewer calories, more flavor—is a winning one when it comes to satisfying consumers’ seemingly paradoxical demands.

“People want healthy, but they don’t really want to sacrifice flavor,” Justice says. With high oleic soybean oil, “the idea is that we can offer a little healthier food without sacrificing any flavor.”

P.F. Chang’s is planning to expand the test to multiple stores, Justice says.

Despite positive early tests, high-oleic soybean oil is still a long way off from reaching market. The first hurdle for the oil was regulation. For example, though Pioneer’s product has been in development for several years and has long been approved for commercialization in North America, the company needed to wait for approval across the globe, including in China, to validate ramping up its production.

There is also typically pushback from farmers who are unwilling to transfer to new crops, as well as hesitance from customers to eat genetically modified foods.

Knowlton says there will be “a build over the next couple of years” to get the supply of the oil up to levels required by bigger restaurant chains.

Finally, it might also take time to convince operators that a different oil is better for their operation, especially one that costs more than the oil they are already using.

Michael Wang, owner of Foumami, an Asian sandwich concept in Boston that uses conventional soybean oil, says he would think twice about switching to a more expensive product, regardless of the longer lifespan.

“I’d consider using it as a [frying] oil,” Wang says. “But in terms of cooking on a normal basis, the benefit of lasting longer doesn’t really mean anything.”

The other attributes of high oleic soybean oil—less unwanted flavor, less food saturation, less smell—are “positive,” Wang says. “Then again, if it doesn’t make too much of a difference to our food [in comparison with] the lower-cost regular soybean oil,” then he says he might not make the switch.

“It really all depends on how much more it costs and how much benefit I am really getting,” Wang says. “Because the soybean oil we use now works pretty well for us.”

The cost savings of longer-lasting frying oil might not be compelling to a small restaurant chain or single-unit concept like Foumami, but developers are banking on its appeal to national and international brands that purchase oil in enormous quantities.

And though it might be a while before high oleic soybean oil starts to fill up fryers across the quick-service industry, the thought of saving on something as common to a restaurant as frying oil is music to an operator’s ears.