Sunflower oil
Beneficial traits include non-G.M.O., no phos and low saturated fat levels.

BISMARCK, N.D. —The traits of sunflower oil fit with certain targets of food manufacturers: non-hydrogenated, non-bioengineered/non-G.M.O. and low in saturated fats. Questions may surround supply, though. Large quantities of sunflower oil would be needed for use in products from multinational corporations.

Maybe the supply of sunflower oil never will reach that of other commodities like palm oil and soybean oil, but acreage may increase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported sunflower plantings of nearly 1.7 million acres this year.

“So we are a smaller crop, but we could easily expand to 3 million acres in a short amount of time,” said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, Bismarck, N.D.

Farmers in the United States grow sunflowers from North Dakota down through Texas, meaning the other states of South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“They grow a variety of crops, and they rotate them,” Mr. Sandbakken said. “So the ability to increase acres (in sunflower) on an annual basis is there as farmers constantly add new crops into their rotations.”

John Sandbakken, National Sunflowers Association
John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

He added, “We’re definitely working on trying to build up our acreage base. As an industry we’re trying to work with more and more customers to build up demand for the oil. Obviously that would translate into more acres.”

Sunflower oil has both health and wellness and “clean label” traits in its favor. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats. The saturated fat content of sunflower oil ranges from less than 7% to about 9%, Mr. Sandbakken said.

“If you’re below 7%, you’re kind of golden right now when it comes to the food processing industry,” Mr. Sandbakken said.

The industry is working on a sunflower oil that is 3% or less saturated fat, but that oil is a couple of years away from being commercially available, he said.

“The beauty of that oil would be that, based on the serving sizes that we use here in the U.S., if you use that (oil), you could label your product as being saturated fat free because it would be less than a serving size,” he said.

Two types of sunflower oil, a mid-oleic NuSun oil and a high-oleic oil, are commercially available now. NuSun works well in frying applications such as for potato chips or french fries. The oil’s fatty acid structure gives it a long fry life.


Sunflower area chart
U.S. sunflower area

“So obviously you get more bang for your buck,” Mr. Sandbakken said. “It’s just a very light oil, and it’s neutral in taste. If you’re making any type of food product that has any flavorings, it allows that food product to have its own flavor.”

The high-oleic oil works better in products needing a longer shelf life. For example, the oil may add stability to granola bars that contain ingredients that have a short shelf life. The high-oleic sunflower might need to be blended with other more solid oils, too.

“Being a neutral-type oil, you could blend it with any oil that you want,” Mr. Sandbakken said. “It’s not going to change that taste profile of the oil you are using.”

Being non-bioengineered gives sunflower oil a key clean label advantage.

“There are no G.M.O. sunflowers in the world,” Mr. Sandbakken said.

He added, “We’ve seen a lot of our demand come from that, where people are saying, ‘I don’t want a pho oil, and I don’t want G.M.O. I want an oil that will function well and give me that clean label.’ We fit in very well with that.”