MU researchers make soybeans healthier

Nov 15, 2013

Soybean field
Credit Camille Phillips / Harvest Public Media

On November 7, the Food and Drug Administration made a preliminary decision. That decision stated trans fats as unsafe in food. Trans fats are found in most processed foods.

A team at the University of Missouri is already on its way to solving this problem. Professor Grover Shannon and USDA scientist Kristin Bilyeu are investigating the use of oleic acid found in soybean oil as a potential remedy. The acid is found in natural fats and oils.

"There’s a big effort, a push to move fast, as fast we can to get this high oleic trait into a good soybean variety," Shannon said.

The duo said they are breeding soybeans to naturally have high oleic acid traits that would avoid genetically modifying the beans.

Shannon and Bilyeu said they were successful in increasing oleic acid from 24% to 80%. According to Shannon, their research is consistent to similar work done in Minnesota that yielded 78% oleic acid.

William Fay, the director of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Missouri Hospital, said trans fats have had an impact on consumers’ cholesterol. 

“The trans fats have a link to heart disease because they increase our blood levels of LDL cholesterol, which is bad cholesterol,” Fay said. “And actually lower levels of HDL cholesterol which is good cholesterol.”

Cholesterol levels are important because they can lead to other cardiovascular health issues, like heart disease. 

According to Fay and Bilyeu, palm oil is a potential challenger but one drawback is its high saturated fat content. 

Bilyeu also said oleic acid is low in both saturated fat and trans fats, making it the healthier alternative.

Shannon said oleic acid is also multifunctional with other uses in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and biodiesel.

Both Bilyeu and Shannon said there is still more work to be done. They are still in the process of developing new soybeans varieties.

“There’s still some additional testing that needs to be done to see how stable the trait is across environments,” Bilyeu said.

Bilyeu said although members in the science and medical community said they are excited about these new high oleic acid soybeans, farmers play a critical role to ensure success. Bilyeu said the new soybeans must have high yield in order to be competitive against other crops. 

"And we want to make sure there are good opportunities for farmers to maintain healthy prices," Bilyeu said.

Shannon said he predicts the demand for high oleic soybeans from the United States will improve.