DENISON, Iowa --With some restaurants and even the city of New York swearing off trans fat, Monsanto Co. recently sent representatives here with a mission: persuade farmers to grow a special kind of soybean that produces a valuable alternative to trans-fat-laden frying oil.
The company and its local soybean processor offered the farmers doughnuts and a simple pitch: an extra 35 cents a bushel to grow the special soybeans instead of regular ones, and seemingly unlimited demand. The special soybeans contain less of a fatty linolenic acid than other soybeans.
Some liked the offer, but others were not so sure, given the extra work involved and the allure of planting high-priced corn instead to feed the ethanol boom.
"I think that the reason that farmers are not catching on to these 'low-lin' soybeans is the premium is not quite enough," said Fred Tilstra, a 69-year-old farmer in Steen, Minn.
As it now stands, there are not nearly enough of the special beans to fill the surging demand. That has created a tricky situation for major fast-food chains and manufacturers who want to stop using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a food industry workhorse that is the source of artificial trans fat.
The reluctance of farmers is just one part of the problem. Monsanto and its competitors have not been able to create new varieties of trans-fat-free soybeans fast enough to meet the demand for more varied uses. And the situation is only going to get worse: In the three weeks since New York City announced it would ban artery-clogging trans fat from its restaurants, several major cities and some states, including California, have begun considering similar measures.
"Everybody knows the situation; you just can't pull this stuff out of a sock," said Kelly Brintle, senior vice president of Ventura Foods, a California company that processes and sells edible oils and is also trying to persuade farmers to produce a lot more of the special soybeans. "Our phones are ringing off the wall."
Trans fat, which is in foods as diverse as cookies and french fries, is created when food manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation, to increase the shelf life of food and stabilize its flavors. For several decades, it was considered a healthier alternative to butter and tropical oils, which contain saturated fats.
But in the 1990s, scientists became convinced that trans fat was more dangerous than the fats it replaced. Not only does it raise levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad, cholesterol, it lowers the levels of good cholesterol.
A strange twist to the current supply squeeze for trans-fat-free soybean oil is that the seeds were created more than a decade ago, but for years, there were no buyers. One seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, finally stopped research on new varieties in 1999 because of the dismal prospects.
"We waited and waited," said Russ Sanders, marketing director at Pioneer, which is now part of DuPont. "Now the market is expanding faster than we can keep up."
As a result, seed companies and oil manufacturers are offering farmers anywhere from 21 cents to 80 cents a bushel extra to grow the low-linolenic soybeans.
Monsanto has made arrangements with 14 processing plants across the Midwestern Corn Belt to process the beans next year, and it has held several meetings with neighboring farmers at each plant to make its sales pitch.
"Our guys are working really hard to sign up as many growers as possible, but obviously there are challenges," said Christopher R. Horner, a Monsanto spokesman.
This year, farmers planted about three-quarters of a million acres of low-linolenic soybeans, anywhere from a third to half of what is needed to meet current demand, said Steven W. Poole, a spokesman for Qualisoy, an association that researches and promotes soybeans with enhanced traits.
Ultimately, Poole anticipates that as many as five million acres of low-linolenic soybeans could be planted in the United States as more partially hydrogenated oils are replaced.
The soybeans are not the only alternative to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Some food companies have switched to palm oil, canola oil or sunflower oil, all products for which sales are growing rapidly to meet the surging demand. Given the difference between supply and demand, prices have risen for many of these oils as well.
But palm oil is high in saturated fats, so health advocates argue that using it substitutes one problem for another.
The other oils have their supporters - Frito-Lay uses corn oil and sunflower oil, for example, while Wendy's uses a soybean-corn blend and Taco Bell recently switched to trans-fat-free canola oil.
Many of the alternatives are more expensive than soybean oil, which accounts for two-thirds of the edible oils consumed in the United States.
KFC Corp. decided to move away from partially hydrogenated soybean oil about three years ago. After testing a variety of oils and getting its food purchasing cooperative to line up farmers to grow low-linolenic soybeans, the fried chicken chain announced the switch in October.
"The soybean oils were the best fit for us because the flavor profile was closest to our original recipe," said Laurie Schalow, a spokeswoman for the company, which is a division of Yum Brands Inc.
McDonald's Corp. is still trying to figure out how to reduce trans fat in its cooking oil, even as pressure mounts from critics and governments intent on banning the substance. The company announced in 2002 that it was reducing trans fat in its frying oil, but it has struggled to find an adequate substitute that does not change the taste of its french fries.
The trick for creating alternatives to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils is maintaining the ability to be heated - or in the case of frying, reheated - without ruining the taste or texture of foods.
Low-linolenic soybeans are popular because their oil can be repeatedly reheated without changing the flavor of foods much, if at all. But while it often works in fast-food restaurants, where the fried food is served quickly, the oil is not as successful in products that require a longer shelf life.
A much larger market depends on several soybean seeds that are not yet available in large quantities. They include soybeans higher in oleic acid, an oily, unsaturated fatty acid, for processed foods including cookies and chips, and increased-oleic, high-stearate soybeans for baked goods such as cakes and pies.
The holy grail is a trans-fat-free soybean shortening for baked goods with just enough saturated fat to remain solid.
'A nice biscuit'
"To make a nice biscuit or a nice cake, you have to have a solid fat," said Bill Hitz, director of food and feed research at Pioneer. "You need some saturates."
All of this, of course, is good news for Iowa's farmers, who ultimately should benefit from new varieties of soybeans that bring premiums. Those fortunate enough to live close to both an ethanol plant and a soybean plant that processes low-linolenic beans find themselves in the relatively rare circumstance of choosing between growing high-priced soybeans or higher-priced corn, at least as long as the ethanol boom continues.
"It's going to be a real hard decision for farmers," said Paul Bruett, a sales representative for BB&P; Feed and Grain in Winterset, Iowa. "Right now, the economic return is better for corn. So it's going to be a real tug of war as we get closer to planting season."
He estimated that corn would return $60 to $100 more per acre than low-linolenic soybeans.
But not every farmer in Iowa has that choice.
James Devin, 35, of Knoxville, Iowa, said farmers south of Interstate 80, where he lives, generally have to rotate growing corn and soybeans because the land is rolling and prone to erosion. Devin said a premium of 50 cents a bushel was easy money, since all he had to do was keep the low-linolenic beans separate from his conventional soybeans.
"Here's your chance to increase your revenue by 50 cents without really doing anything," he said. "The yields are about the same or better. I'd say they are my best bean."
But he acknowledged that most of his neighbors had not planted low-linolenic soybeans because of the inconvenience of keeping the beans separate and transporting them separately for processing.
While Tilstra, from Steen, Minn., used to grow half soybeans and half corn, he now plants two-thirds of his land with corn. For soybeans, he said, "the premium is 21 cents. We're not going to do a lot of work for that. You'll always go corn unless that premium is outlandish, $1 or $1.25."
Kenneth Fawcett, 57, of West Branch, Iowa, said he, too, is the exception in his part of eastern Iowa. He has planted low-linolenic soybeans for three years and collected premiums as high as 80 cents a bushel because his soybeans are not genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant and, thus, sell at a higher price.
But he said most of his neighbors are more likely to plant corn or regular soybeans because low-linolenic soybeans are too much work. In addition to the need to keep them separate, he said, the processing plant accepts them only a couple of days each month.
"I think a lot of people want to grow the beans because it's the right thing," Fawcett said, but, "the economics have to be there to reward them."