Q&A about Plenish® soybeans

posted in: Talks & Interviews | 2

In the post What do you want to know about Plenish® Soybeans? we invited you to ask questions of Susan Knowlton, a Senior Research Manager with DuPont and the lead of the DuPont Healthy Oils team (see her bio below). Dr. Knowles has provided detailed responses to some of your questions.

Susan Knowlton, image provided by DuPont Pioneer.
Susan Knowlton, image by Kerry Harrison, provided by DuPont Pioneer.

1. Will this oil be available to the general consumer, and if so, how will we be able to tell it comes from these soybeans?

Plenish high oleic soybean oil will initially be made available to food service and food manufacturers through normal commercial distribution channels. So, consumers might experience the oil through their patronage at quick service restaurants, cafés, cafeterias, and fine dining establishments. Really, any facility that cares about the quality of their food and prefers to use a high stability oil that won’t develop rancid flavors as quickly is a potential user of this oil. However, unless your local restaurants choose to tout their use of this oil, and they may, you may not be aware they are using it.

Another means by which consumers will experience this oil is through purchases at the grocery.  Oils are often used as ingredients in baked goods or they may be used on the surface of cereals, crackers, nuts or candies to act as a moisture barrier and to provide sheen. Plenish high oleic soybean oil is a natural choice in these situations for companies wishing to protect their products from developing off flavors and odors over time. In packaged goods, you may more readily recognize its use since ingredient labels could indicate high oleic soybean oil as the oil component.

But I’m guessing your question may be more directly asking if Plenish will be sold as a consumer retail bottled oil much like corn, canola, or olive oil. The simple answer is that while we have spoken with several companies who are contemplating product concepts using Plenish as a healthier, brand-name, premium bottled oil, we do not know of any company actively doing that today. We do hand out bottles of Plenish at food industry shows. If you are attending any of those in your near future please stop by and pick one up at our booth! To find which shows we’re attending, visit our Plenish website.

2. How does this oil compare to coconut oil that is now so popular?

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature because it contains a large amount of saturated fat. Years ago, the oil was demonized because of its high saturate content and its association with ‘tropical oils’ and yet today it has made a significant come-back in health circles by proponents who believe it was unfairly maligned. Today, those in the nutritional communities recognize that all saturated fats do not act on the body in the same way, although the health impacts of one fat versus another continue to be hotly debated. Many chefs and food enthusiasts appreciate the flavor of coconut oil, described as nutty and sweet with the aromatics associated with coconut. Foodies and vegans use it as a replacement for butter primarily in bakery and dessert products, icings, pie crusts, and the like, although there are those who appreciate its qualities as a sauté oil for vegetables and seafood. Any food that might benefit from sweeter oil with a coconut flavor might be a standout as a result of using this aromatic oil.

Coconut oil and Plenish high oleic soybean oil are pretty much polar opposites when thinking about composition and uses however. Plenish is high in oleic acid, a long chain (18 carbon) monounsaturated fatty acid while coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a medium chain (14 carbon) saturated fatty acid. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, Plenish is liquid. Coconut oil has a distinct flavor and imparts that into the food. Plenish is valued for being neutral, allowing the flavor of the food to come through. Coconut oil is imported, Plenish is domestically sourced. Further, the scale of oil availability between soy and coconut differs dramatically. In 2012, 8.1 million metric tons (mmt) of soybean oil was consumed in the U.S. while only 0.4 mmt of coconut oil was consumed. Large food companies need a reliable supply and adequate volumes before they will consider an oil for their recipes, and coconut oil does not offer the assurance of an adequate supply that most large companies require. The two oils are similar in nature only in the sense that both are low in polyunsaturated fat, making them stable to oxidation reactions which cause rancidity.

3. How strong is the scientific consensus to indicate a greater consumption of oleic acid via soybean oil, as a contributor to cancer prevention? Some studies suggest cancer inhibition in vitro, and higher or lower risk in breast cancer in prospective analysis.

I’m not an expert in this area so I asked a few of my colleagues to look at the published literature and assess whether there are strong correlations that can be drawn between oleic acid consumption and cancer prevention. Here is what they told me.

There are well known correlations between oleic acid consumption and cardiovascular disease markers, however in the area of cancer, similar conclusions are much harder to come by. No consistent association has been established between dietary intake of oleic acid and a reduction in cancer risk. Results from human epidemiology studies support both increased as well as decreased risk of cancer and cannot be attributed specifically to oleic acid, but rather to the various food sources containing oleic acid (e.g., olive oil). 1, 2   Animal studies exploring the relationship between oleic acid and chemically-induced or spontaneous carcinogenesis are rare and among these, the results are inconclusive and often contradict findings from in vitro assays of cancer initiation and progression, and the human epidemiology studies mentioned above. 3, 4  Finally, in vitro studies with different cultured cancer cell lines modeling oncogene expression and apoptosis also showed inconsistencies in response to treatment with oleic acid. 5, 6

So all said, I think the jury is still out on oleic acid and its effects on cancer prevention. We are not working in this area ourselves. If it’s any help, in addition to the references you provided, here are several papers pertinent to your interests.

  1. Binukumar, B and A Mathew (2005)  Dietary fat and risk of breast cancer.  World J Surgical Oncology 3:45-51
  2. Gerber, M, Thiébaut, A, Astorg, P, Clavel-Chapelon, F, and N Combe (2005) Dietary fat, fatty acid composition and risk of cancer.  Eur J Lipid Sci Technol 107:540-559
  3. Nakahara, W (1924) Effect of fatty acids on the resistance of mice to transplanted cancer.  J Exp Med 40:363-373
  4. Nakahara, W (1925) Resistance to spontaneous mouse cancer induced by injections of oleic acid.  J Exp Med 41:347-356
  5. Schaffer, EM and JA Milner (1996)  Impact of dietary fatty acids on 7,12-dimethylbenz[alpha]anthracene-induced mammary DNA adducts.  Cancer Lett 106:177-183
  6. Menendez, JA, Papadimitropoulou, A, Vellon, L, and R Lupu (2006)  A genomic explanation connecting “Mediterranean diet,” olive oil and cancer:  Oleic acid, the main monounsaturated fatty acid of olive oil, induces formation of inhibitory “PEA3 transcription factor-PEA3 DNA binding site” complexes at the Her-2/neu (erbB-2) oncogene promoter in breast, ovarian and stomach cancer cells.  Eur J Cancer 42:2425-2432

4. My state, Indiana, wants to be a leader with these new soybeans. Last year there was a $.50/bu premium for Plenish beans if you grew at least 300 acres. That’s a pretty good incentive! But the premium would be partially eaten by the additional trucking to a further elevator. An interesting development: the company we raise popcorn for is beginning to think about also contracting soybean acres with their popcorn farmers. They are interested in processing their own oil so they can tailor the flavor to their products.

Thanks for your enthusiasm in wanting to become an Indiana Plenish high oleic soybean grower! Right now our goal is to double contract acres of Plenish soybeans in Indiana for 2014 and our processing partners have added ten new delivery locations. A second processor contracting program has been added in Northwest Indiana for the Bunge, Decatur, Ind. facility. We will continue to add delivery locations in future years, so hopefully we will have a location that works well for you soon. You can find a list of all the Plenish processor contracts at our Plenish website. Click on the ‘Farming’ tab and then ‘Contracts’ for a summary sheet for each of the programs.

5. Does the oil need to be specially processed to get the improved qualities or is the total oil improved? Will there be any DNA or protein (soybean or GE) in the oil?

Plenish high oleic soybean oil is produced in the same manner as conventional soybean oil. Only the composition of its fatty acids have been changed which doesn’t affect how the oil is extracted and processed. Any method used to produce conventional soybean oil can be used to produce high oleic soybean oil. So to be clear, we are not using molecular methods to separate the components of the oil after it is extracted but rather changing the fatty acid composition in the soybean before the oil is removed.

I can provide a few websites that have information on soybean processing. In general, soybeans are ‘crushed’ to separate the oil away from the soybean meal. This is typically done with solvents but can also be done mechanically with ‘expellers.’ The oil at this state is referred to as ‘crude oil.’ There are a series of steps processors use to further clean the oil. These are referred to as refining, bleaching, and deodorization by the industry. The resulting oil is referred to as RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) oil and this is the form that is typically sold in the grocery store. The refining, bleaching and deodorizing steps are used to remove impurities such as free fatty acids, pigments, oxidation products, soaps, metal ions, off flavors and odors. A very detailed history of soybean processing can be found on the Soy Info website. There you will find detailed processing methods used today about halfway down the page (entitled “Modern Soybean Crushing and Oil Refining Processes”). Another detailed paper on soy processing can be found beginning on page 591 of chapter 13 from Bailey’s Industrial Oil and Fat Products (page 15 of the pdf, entitled “Recovery of Oil From Soybeans”) on this website.

Note that both references include additional processing steps that can be used with oils such as hydrogenation, fractionation, and intersterification. All of these processes are optional add-ons and not used when producing a typical ‘salad oil.’

As to your question regarding the presence of DNA and protein in oil, I would point you to the European Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) Opinion concerning the basis for determining whether food, derived from genetically modified soya and from genetically modified maize, can be included in a list of food products which do not require labeling because they do not contain detectable DNA or protein. My shortened version would go something like this. The general consensus is that most scientists believe highly refined oils to be devoid of DNA and protein as a result of the rigorous processing used by the industry which would degrade or remove these substances. However other forms of oil, for example those which have gone through less rigorous procedures, such as expeller pressed oils or crude oils, may contain trace amounts of DNA or protein. However it appears your question also concerned non-soybean DNA or proteins. In that respect, the Plenish high oleic soybeans have been through exhaustive testing as part of our regulatory responsibility. That testing showed the only new protein being expressed is a modified soybean acetolactate synthase enzyme that confers resistance to sulfonylurea herbicides. We use this solely for the transformation process to select for transformed cells. The safety testing of this protein has been published.1 The high oleic trait and the sulfonylurea selection trait both used soybean DNA to achieve their desired result.

  1.  Mathesius, C.A., Barnett Jr., J.F., Cressman, R.F., Ding, J., Carpenter, C., Ladics, G.S., Schmidt, J., Layton, R.J., Zhang, J.X.Q., Appenzeller, L.M., Carlson, G., Ballou, S., and Delaney, B.  (2009).  Safety assessment of a modified acetolactate synthase protein (GM-HRA) used as a selectable marker in genetically modified soybeans.  Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 55:309-320.

6. How does this soybean oil compare to non-biotech high oleic soy, and how does it compare to Monsanto’s Vistive Gold?

The composition of Vistive Gold and Plenish soybeans are similar but not identical. Plenish high oleic soybeans are slightly higher in the heart-healthy, monounsaturated, oleic acid while Vistive Gold soybeans are slightly lower in the saturated, palmitic and stearic fatty acids. Both types are lower in saturated fat than conventional soybeans. In fact, the compositions are similar enough the industry debates whether to keep them separate across the supply chain or to blend them at the crush plant. It is still an open question and different processors may choose different strategies within the next few years. Both products were produced using biotechnology and both are moving through the global regulatory framework towards full scale commercialization. Plenish has all major market approvals except for the European Union.

While non-biotech high oleic soybeans have been described in publications, it is still unclear whether this approach can produce a viable commercial product. To be successful in the market, products that must be kept separate from conventional streams (called identity preservation) must meet several criteria. First, there cannot be any depression on yield or farmers will not want to grow them and the economics of seed and oil production just won’t work out. Second, the oil and protein levels must be the same as conventional beans, and the fatty acid profile must not vary year over year nor across wide geographic production areas. And finally, the trait must be delivered to farmers with all of the necessary agronomic protections built in across a wide variety of maturity groups. If any of these requirements are missing, the production economics just will not work. No easy feat as you might imagine! But, if the high oleic trait can be delivered with a non biotech approach, companies will embrace it as another way to deliver a healthier oil to consumers that prefer non-GMO. It might be coupled with other biotech traits such as herbicide and pest resistance making the overall variety ‘biotech.’ That’s because of the enormous volumes of oil that food companies require for production of their products and currently non-GMO soybeans just cannot deliver.

7. Could you share information on the genetic modification in the Plenish soybean DNA? What leads to the change in monounsaturated fat content?

The Plenish high oleic soybeans were produced by suppressing a key enzyme in the oil biosynthetic pathway: an omega 6 desaturase. This enzyme ordinarily converts oleic acid into linoleic acid. By suppressing expression of this enzyme, a ‘block’ is introduced into the pathway and oleic acid accumulates while the two polyunsaturated fatty acids that follow it, linoleic and linolenic acids, are produced at significantly lower levels. It is a very simple step and does not require the addition of new protein since it relies on suppression of the endogenous enzyme. Suppression of the omega 6 desaturase enzyme is seed specific, achieved by using an expression element that is active primarily in the seed and not in the vegetative tissues of the plant. The seed oil in conventional soybean has about 22% oleic acid and about 55% linoleic acid while Plenish seed oil contains about 76% oleic acid and about 6% linoleic acid.

8. An Italian company is making compostable plastic film using corn starch and high oleic sunflower oil. I sent them a sample of Monsanto’s high oleic soybean oil and the company said, after analysis, that it looked suitable. But they need at least 80% oleic. Can Dupont achieve this with Plenish? There are other bioproduct applications for high-oleic oil, specially if it is compatible with food uses.

Thanks for expanding the conversation to include the industrial applications for this oil! It’s one of the reasons I like this product so much, it’s a trait that just keeps giving in so many different areas. As you attest, the Plenish high oleic soybean oil is also likely to be used as a base stock in industrial formulations. There are two drivers for this.  First, industrial users find value in the same high degree of oxidative stability that benefits food production. Physical changes in viscosity and the accumulation of polymers (gunk) cause problems in engines and hydraulics as lubricants oxidize. The second aspect is the relative purity of the oleic acid. For some chemistries, a more homogenous fluid is welcomed so side reactions are minimized, the reaction is pure and predictable, and other fatty acids (primarily saturates) don’t have to be separated beforehand.

I was not aware of the biodegradable film use you mention, but other applications anticipated include lubricants (everything from tractors to elevators to automobile), tire production, adhesives, and foams, just to name a few. In virtually every industrial application, the higher the oleic content the better the value proposition. It does not appear there is a true minimum oleic content or else the oil won’t work; rather the higher the oleic the better the functionality and economics. Plenish is about 76% oleic and in that regard one of the leading contenders in this space which hopes to replace petroleum based products with biobased, and in particular vegetable oil based. The high oleic sunflower oil you mention is a great oil from that perspective, above 80% oleic but unfortunately a high price tag accompanies it. High oleic soybean oil is expected to compete favorably in this space because its price structure and premium will be based off soy, one of the lower cost oils on the market today. And, Plenish has the highest oleic content of any soy under commercial development.

From a technical perspective, the oleic content can be further increased in several specific ways but not in the Plenish oil as it is delivered out of the bean. First, it is technically possible to achieve even higher oleic content again using biotechnology. For experimental purposes, we have produced soybean oils with 90% oleic acid just by putting a harder block on the omega 6 desaturase enzyme mentioned above and further decreasing the saturated fatty acid levels. Others in the field have published similar results. So it is doable, but it costs a lot of money to develop and deregulate these products in soy and therefore a company has to believe there is sufficient payoff for a return on their investment. Another method of increasing the oleic acid is to split the fatty acid off the glycerol backbone and then purify the resulting oleic stream. This is being done commercially and a number of companies are pursuing this route when higher oleic acid streams are preferred.

How can I get a photo like yours? I love it, it’s like glamour shots for scientists. I wish I had a photo like yours to represent my research!

Thank you so much but you are too kind! I have to give full credit to my photographer, Kerry Harrison. I wanted a picture of me that didn’t seem too formal and ‘science-y’ as I’m no different than your readers who want to continually learn about these technologies. Kerry came up with the idea of using a colander of soybeans and a bottle of oil for the shot. She does weddings too!


Susan is a Senior Research Manager with DuPont, and a founding member and technical lead of the DuPont Healthy Oils venture team. She has more than 25 years experience in the field of Agricultural Biotechnology. Susan has over 20 published articles in scientific journals and is an inventor on five patents.

For the past 20 years, Susan has managed various research functions within the soy quality traits group, which seeks to tailor crop compositions to improve the nutrition and functionality of food ingredients for consumer and food manufacturers.

Susan is responsible for the commercial introduction of Plenish® high oleic soybeans. These soybeans produce oil with exceptional stability and improved nutrition suitable for food service and food manufacture applications in which partially hydrogenated oils were traditionally used. These soybeans can also provide a sustainable, domestically-produced alternative to petroleum-based feedstocks for product formulation. Plenish® is the first soy-based biotech product with direct consumer benefits.

  • Robert Wagerr

    Please correct me if I am wrong. Because there is material differences in these oils the FDA mandates labeling outlining the differences, correct?

  • https://plus.google.com/+MaryMangan/ MaryM

    Thanks for the tips on the oil processing–that’s exactly what I needed.