French fries. Onion rings. Fried chicken. The quick-service industry has long catered to consumers’ love affair with fried foods. But with caloric labeling becoming more important to consumers and the recession putting pressure on operators to save dollars in the supply chain, one company says it’s found a healthier, more efficient solution to fried foods: genetically modified soybeans.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a seed company owned by DuPont, developed a new strain of soybean that yields oil with much higher functionality and healthy components than standard soybean and other commodity oils. The company says once its oil is available commercially—probably in 2012—it will be a more viable frying oil for fast food companies.

“In essence, what we’re doing is trying to improve the profile of this oil,” says Russ Sanders, marketing director for Pioneer Hi-Bred. “Some of the things that have caused it to be unstable, or maybe not have the kind of [strong] fry life or shelf-life characteristics, we’ve been able to correct and improve by changing its profile.”

By changing the soybean profile through genetic modification, Pioneer developed the Plenish High Oleic soybean. The oil from it includes no trans fats, 20 percent less saturated fat than standard soybean oil, and 75 percent less saturated fat than palm oil, another common commodity oil. 

“The genetic horsepower of these plants is incredible if you can minimize the factors that tend to depress that expression,” Sanders says. “That’s why we talk about feeding the world and feeling confident that we can do this over time. We know the potential that exists in these plants.”

Susan Knowlton, a DuPont research scientist, says the Plenish High Oleic soybean was developed to replace partially hydrogenated soybean oil, a common frying oil in the foodservice industry. The partial hydrogenation process was developed by the industry to increase oil stability and the shelf life of packaged goods, but contains trans fats.

Trans fats, Sanders says, are one of the reasons soybean oil accounted for as much as 79 percent of North American vegetable oil consumption in the early part of the decade but dropped to 67 percent in 2008–2009. The drop in usage, he says, came after 2006 regulation that required the nutrition labeling of trans fats.

“Naturally healthy is still the major trend that’s not going to be slowing down any time soon, and for us in the oil arena, that means more virgin or less processed oils,” says Bill McCullough, director of marketing for Bunge Oils.

McCullough says there are three things that all operators want from oil: healthiness, stability, and taste. He says the new high-oleic soybean offers versatility for all three of those categories.

“In the case of hydrogenated oils, you can only use them for one thing: frying,” McCullough says. “You can use the same high-oleic soybean oil to create a vinaigrette. It’s a big way to eliminate a [stock-keeping unit], which is a big deal in back of house of restaurants. You wouldn’t want to carry a separate oil to create your vinaigrette from your frying oil.”

The high-oleic soybean might also help operators save money in the back of house because of its stability. While standard commodity oils might only last a few days, Knowlton says the high-oleic oil has a fry life that can be two to three times longer. The high-oleic oil also produces far less polymer buildup in frying machines than other commodity oils.

Chris Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago, says restaurants must have a frying oil that not only tastes good, but lasts a long time. He says frying oils are too often used past their shelf life to save money, but that the process leads to oil rancidity, which ruins the fried food.

“You want a french fry to taste like a french fry,” he says. “You don’t want a french fry to taste like the oil.”

Koetke says the development of the high-oleic soybean in an age where more consumers are concerned about healthy eating is proof that the soybean’s role in foodservice should be growing.

Mark Messina, executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute, says that all soy, not just the frying oil, should play a bigger part in the American diet. 

“You want a french fry to taste like a french fry. You don’t want a french fry to taste like the oil.”

“It’s got a very small role right now,” Messina says. “At the bare minimum, it provides high-quality protein—similar to animal protein—but is low in saturated fat. To me, that’s enough for people to start thinking about it.”

The Plenish soybean has been approved for commercial distribution in North America, but is awaiting approval in other markets such as China and Europe. Once the Plenish soybean is approved globally for commercialization, which is anticipated for 2012, Sanders says the hardest part might be yet to come.

“Our toughest sell is the farmer,” he says. “The farmer is the first link in the chain. They tend to look at you with really stern eyes and say, ‘You want me to grow what?’”

Another challenge facing Pioneer is the fact that there are opponents to genetically modified foods. But Sanders says the importance of a product like a high-oleic soybean warrants a second look at these types of foods.

“At the end of the day, if eating patterns are changing, consumers are saying they want something different, and we have the tools to make the changes biologically in these crops, why not do it?” Sanders says.

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