Food manufacturers see sunflower oil as healthier non-GMO option

Published: February 25, 2016

More food manufacturers are switching to sunflower oil because of its “clean,” non-GMO, and trans fat free status, and consumer perception as a healthier oil.

Demand for healthier, non-GMO oil

“We are seeing small to large food manufacturers switching to sunflower oil,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. “They are adding sunflower oil because it has an exceptional fat profile with less than 10% unhealthy saturated fat, no trans fat, and over 90% healthy unsaturated fat.”

Rick Robbins, general manager at Colorado Mills, sees steady interest in his company’s sunflower oil. “A lot of distributors for restaurants and bakeries and snack food manufacturers want a healthier, non-GMO oil,” he says.

According to Robbins, there is a move away from GMO soybean and canola oils.

“Soybean and canola have been the predominant oils but there has been a major drop in those oils in the marketplace,” he says. “It’s being driven by the consumers; they are being more vocal about what they want.”

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, 56% of Americans rated sunflower oil as either “extremely healthful” or “somewhat healthful.”

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The growing demand for sunflower oil is in line with the “clean” label trend in the food industry as food companies use fewer, simpler ingredients.

“As consumer demand for more natural and wholesome foods continues to grow, it’s not surprising that food manufacturers are creating cleaner labels and healthier ingredient decks,” Sandbakken says. “For those who want to make the non-GMO claim and have a cleaner label, sunflower oil fits the bill.”

Industry choice to stay non-GMO

A big driver for the interest in sunflower oil is its non-GMO status, which is likely to remain that way for two reasons. First, it is difficult for scientists to genetically alter sunflowers. Second, sunflower has many wild and weedy related species, and GMOs could pass to these wild species, which could proliferate in the environment.

As a result, Sandbakken says: “As an industry it’s been our choice to stay non-GMO.”

While sunflower oil has many food applications, Sandbakken says the main users of sunflower oil are snack food manufacturers. For example, Canada-based Neal Brothers Foods creates “better for you” snack options that use whole, natural and organic ingredients. “Many of our snack foods contain sunflower oil since it provides a clean light taste. It is also very stable at the high temperature needed for cooking our potato chips and popcorn,” says Peter Neal, co-owner of Neal Brothers.  “When our customers pick up a package of our kettle cooked chips, they are looking for natural ingredients. Non-GMO sunflower oil assures them that we are creating premium snacks with the best quality ingredients.”

Robbins says larger companies such as Frito Lay and Kettle brand have switched to sunflower oil. Other large companies that have recently switched to sunflower oil include Wal-Mart, which introduced bottled sunflower oil in 2013, and Chipotle, which switched to sunflower oil as part of its commitment to non-GMO ingredients.

With the growing demand for non-GMO sunflower oil, US farmers are planting more sunflower acreage. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015’s sunflower crop was a record breaking crop with production increasing by 32% over 2014. The average yield of oil-type sunflower varieties increased from 119 pounds in 2014 to a record high 1,579 pounds per acre in 2015.

(Information also provided by the National Sunflower Association)

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