KANSAS CITY — Producers of out-of-favor ingredients are fighting back. The Corn Refiners Association, Washington, has defended high-fructose corn syrup for years. Bioengineered/genetically modified soybeans are being used to create healthier cooking oils, and makers of vital wheat gluten are determined to shift consumer perceptions of their product.

Gluten is a plant protein

The International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington, on June 10 released its annual Food & Health Survey. Among the 1,011 Americans of the ages 18 to 80 who responded, 70% said they perceived protein from plant sources to be healthy.

Vital wheat gluten is a plant protein.

“The nutritional benefits (of vital wheat gluten) are really getting more protein into your diet,” said John Keaveney, vice president of food ingredients for PureField Ingredients, Russell, Kan., a vital wheat gluten supplier. “Then it obviously has some functionality-type benefits in bread and dough, allowing bread to rise and allowing dough to stretch and form.”

The IFIC Foundation also asked people what diets they followed. The gluten-free diet and a plant-based diet each came in at 6%.

“You’re striking that balance between the word gluten and a push toward plant-based protein,” Mr. Keaveney said. “We are a natural, non-GMO source of plant-based protein.”

Wheat gluten suppliers could do a better job of defending their product, Mr. Keaveney said. The International Wheat Gluten Association was scheduled to meet at IFT20, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting, in Chicago in July and discuss possible gluten promotions. However, that meeting will not take place since COVID-19 forced IFT20 to go virtual.

Gluten-free popularity in Europe has not reached the heights it has in North America, Mr. Keaveney said, and more gluten comes from Europe. The United States imports about 500 million lbs of wheat protein each year from regions such as Europe, China and Australia, according to PureField Ingredients. PureField produces more than half of all wheat protein made in America, according to the company. Ms. Keaveney said PureField produces about 50 million lbs per year.

"We’re the largest domestic producer but really small on the grand scale,” Mr. Keaveney said.

Manildra USA, Leawood, Kan., a business of the Manildra Group, also supplies vital wheat gluten and has promotional materials such as shirts that read “I (heart) gluten." The company’s Gem of the West vital wheat gluten works in a variety of baking and food applications that require unique visco-elastic properties. GemPro wheat protein isolates provide a nutritional boost to food products.

Nearly identical to sugar

The Corn Refiners Association for more than a decade has pointed out high-fructose corn syrup is nearly identical to sugar (sucrose) and that the American Medical
Association has stated HFCS does not appear to contribute to obesity more
than other caloric sweeteners.

The association continues to put out that message in 2020.

“The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and its members are committed to the advancement of transparent, science-based food and nutrition policies that meet the needs and interests of consumers,” said John Bode, president and chief executive officer of the CRA. “At current physical activity levels, most Americans need to reduce their total intake of calories. So, CRA does not promote increased consumption of caloric sweeteners of any kind, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But there may be advantages to using HFCS as an ingredient in certain foods. HFCS is used in products, including baked foods, for a variety of reasons, such as enhancing texture and browning, retaining moisture, and helping with product bulk and volume.

“HFCS is nutritionally equivalent to sugar, with no unique dietary concerns, and it offers functional advantages for many products. If choosing between caloric sweeteners, it should be given consideration.”

Defending GMOs

Non-genetically engineered acres account for about 20% of the 500,000 acres of high-oleic soybeans that should be harvested in the United States this year, said Richard Galloway, a consultant for Qualisoy, a third-party collaboration that promotes the latest soybean traits.

Qualisoy does not hide the fact that a large majority of high-oleic soybeans are GMO.

“Genetically engineered soybeans and other genetically engineered crops have been utilized extensively in edible products since the early 1990s, and science consistently confirms that they are safe for consumption,” Mr. Galloway said. “In fact, bioengineering contributes to farmers’ critical goal of implementing environmentally sustainable farming practices, including the use of reduced-risk herbicides that are non-toxic to wildlife and humans.”

When additional shelf life or resistance to oxidation from high-heat applications are required, high-oleic soybean oil offers an alternative to conventional soybean oil and other vegetable oils, he said.

“It is ideal for frying, sautéing, baked goods and snack foods,” Mr. Galloway said. “High-oleic soybean oil is free of trans fat and is a direct substitute for partially hydrogenated oil, which makes it a great choice for the food industry. High-oleic soybean oil also contains less saturated fat and has three times the amount of monounsaturated fatty acids than comparable conventional oils.”

Nicole Rees, product manager for AB Mauri North America, St. Louis, a business of AB Mauri, speaks on the benefits of genetic modification, too. Some enzymes, which play a role in clean label product development, are derived via genetically modified technology, she said.

“Using a GM process to ferment enzymes has resulted in tools that can replace functional emulsifiers such as diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides (DATEM), sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL) and mono- and diglycerides, even at equal or lesser cost,” she said.

Some consumers today may be willing to hear about GMO benefits.

“While the definition of ‘clean label’ is still up for grabs and even a bit misunderstood, consumers just want simple, trusted and easy-to-understand ingredients in the foods they choose,” Ms. Rees said. “That much we know. What is still up for debate is how accepting consumers are of the suggested multiple benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) related to sustainability such as water and soil conservation, insect resistance, herbicide reduction and even crop efficiency.”

The mindset of younger generations potentially could be a plus for GMO ingredients, Ms. Rees said. Twenty years ago, people either avoided GMOs or did not care, she said.

“Today’s environment is quite different as millennials and Generation Z consumers both demand transparency,” she said. “It’s not just about clean label but a cleaner process. Now, biotechnology is no longer equated with ‘Frankenfood,’ as younger, male influencers welcome the genetic modification process that makes their workout recovery drinks functional while still questioning the need for GM corn chips. Decisions are not black and white, but instead are taken on a case-by-case basis.”