Ohio Farm Bureau member John Motter plants and harvests about 350 acres of soybeans in Hancock County. In the agricultural landscape of Ohio where county roads are flanked by the crop, that might not seem remarkable. After all, the Buckeye State ranks sixth in the nation for soybean production and more than 4.5 million acres a year of the versatile legume is processed for everything from biodiesel fuels to industrial uses and livestock feed.
This grain farmer doesn’t even refer to his crop in terms of yield, but he is anxious to talk about what he and other Ohio farmers are doing to bring it back into kitchens and why consumers should take notice.
“At one time, 82 percent of the vegetable cooking oils used in the country were made from soybeans,” said Motter. “Twenty-five years ago, they were popular with consumers because they were low in polyunsaturated fats. In 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration began requiring labeling for trans fats, which aren’t good for us, manufacturers started going away from using soybeans for cooking oils.”
Market shares dropped from 82 to 64 percent, but now Motter and others are looking to regain that market by growing a high oleic variety of soybean specifically for culinary use.
High oleic oils, including palm kernel oil, are high in unsaturated fats (good fats), low in saturated fats (bad fats) and contain no trans fats, which have been linked to higher risks of coronary disease, heart attacks and strokes.
“This is also a domestic crop,” Motter reminds. “When you look at some of the competing oil crops you’ll find that palm oil is a Malaysian crop and canola oil is from Canada. When we use vegetable oil from soybeans as our cooking oil, it is a local or regional product,” and that’s a feature that many consumers actively seek out to use in their cooking.
Motter has been growing the high oleic soybeans for four years on the slightly rolling land that characterizes his farm. The seeds he plants were developed specifically for the Ohio growing season and first introduced in northwest Ohio.
“I was among a dozen farmers in the state to introduce this soybean for use as an oil,” he said. “Each year, there are more and more farmers doing the same and more acres are put into production as the demand grows among food oil manufacturers.” Motter says that the goal of the United Soybean Board is, that by 2023, there will be 30 million acres (about one third of the total crop) of high oleic soybeans in the United States.
Soybeans are grown in 32 states; it’s a crop that adapts to a large variety of soil types. “This is why the food industry likes soybean oil for cooking because they are not dependent on one small growing region,” said Motter. “The ability to grow soybeans in such a wide growing region ensures a constant supply.”
In Motter’s opinion, high oleic oil could replace any of the commonly found, general purpose cooking oils like olive, safflower, corn and canola. “The fry life of this oil is probably three times the oils cooks currently use,” he said. “It has a high smoking point so when they cook a French fry, the potatoes hold onto their golden color and won’t brown in the oil.” Like all vegetable oils, this one is flavor neutral and can be used for anything. “Food will not take on the taste of the oil,” Motter said. “Cooks get the best of everything in this one oil.”
Which bean is which? The difference between a commodity bean and a high oleic soybean can’t be seen with the naked eye. From any angle, one looks like the other. “Oil manufacturers use NIR (near infrared) machinery to measure oil content,” explains Motter. “The test is complex but essentially it analyzes the oleic and linoleic acid content, proteins and amino acids of the soybean.” Commodity soybeans have an 11 percent linoleic acid content, the amino acid that requires manufacturers to hydrogenate oil to create a stable shelf life. “The high oleic soybean has a 2 percent content, a natural feature of the bean,” he said. “That eliminates the need to hydrogenate the oil so no trans fats are created.”
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of “Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate” and “The Locavore’s Kitchen.”