Sunflowers a bright spot for farmers and consumers

12/02/2006 @ 12:56pm

Sunflowers are a bright spot on the horizon for American farmers -- and a source of heart-healthy benefits for consumers.

This native seed was cultivated by Indian tribes in Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 B.C. Today, more than 2.2 million acres of sunflowers are grown in the U.S.

Hybridization in the U.S. offered greater yields and disease resistance, as well as enhanced oil content.

"By the 1950s, sunflowers were a good fit for our climate and crop rotation," says John Sandbakken, marketing director, National Sunflower Association (NSA), Bismarck, North Dakota.

Sunflowers also are a good fit with a changing U.S. diet. Linoleic oil, the original sunflower oil, is 65% polyunsaturated, but it still requires partial hydrogenation to stay shelf-stable. In 1995, the NSA launched an initiative to create a product low in saturated fat that didn't require partial hydrogenation.

Linoleic oil was crossed with high-oleic oil, creating a mid-oleic oil, known as NuSun. NuSun is trans-fat free and low in saturated fat. By 2006, NuSun varieties accounted for 70% to 75% of total acres.

"Two drivers are growing the sunflower market," Sandbakken says. "One is consumers looking to lower saturated fats. Second, and most significant, is reducing trans fats."

In January 2006, the FDA began requiring trans fat labels.

In 2005, a controlled clinical study at Pennsylvania State University showed a NuSun oil diet reduced total cholesterol by 4.7% and LDL cholesterol by 5.8%, compared to the average American diet.

"This suggests balancing fats in the diet by adding mono- and polyunsaturated fats may be the most beneficial way to manage heart health," says Penny Kris-Etherton, a Penn State University researcher.

A growing number of items on grocery shelves contain sunflower oil. In 2003, Frito-Lay converted to nonhydrogenated oils in its major brands (Lays and Ruffles). In 2006, it converted these brands to NuSun.

Crisco has a new 0 grams trans fats product, and Pepperidge Farm's Goldfish crackers also use NuSun.

New products are sprouting from varieties bred for the nonoil, or confection market. SunButter, a peanut-free product, is an example.

"There's so much food-processing demand," Sandbakken says. "We'll start to see acres grow in 2007."

Sunflowers are a bright spot on the horizon for American farmers -- and a source of heart-healthy benefits for consumers.