The rising concern about trans fatty acids poses a big challenge for the food industry, but founders of a small soybean processing plant outside the Duplin County town of Warsaw think they’ve come up with a solution. In 2002, Carolina Soy Products, LLC, (CSP) began selling a cooking oil touted as having no trans fatty acids.
The firm, established by a group of investors who wanted to sell a soybean additive for the livestock industry, stumbled into the cooking oil business when it lost its market for the crude oil they’d been pressing out of beans.
“ We never had the intention of getting into the oil refining business, but we had an oil chemist look at the quality of the crude oil we were extracting, and based on that, we decided we were really onto something,” said Jerry Tysinger, the company’s vice president. “It’s a clear oil with the same characteristics as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, but it has double the fry life and has no trans fatty acids.”
When competitors responded with skepticism, CSP turned to the director of the county North Carolina Cooperative Extension center for help. Ed Emory had worked with CSP “since before the first shovel of dirt was turned,” Tysinger said. “And so we felt he was the right guy to talk to about this.”
Emory led CSP to Dr. Brian Farkas, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences food scientist and engineer. With Farkas’ help, visiting international student Yifat Yaniv of Israel compared three foods — tortillas, French fries and partially fried chicken nuggets — fried in CSP’s Whole Harvest oil with similar food fried in a leading hydrogenated oil.
Their findings: Not only were the foods fried in Whole Harvest free of trans fats, foods partially fried in the other oil and then finish-fried in the Whole Harvest had lower trans fat counts than those fried in the other oil.
With the research results in hand, CSP saw sales of its oil grow by about 20 percent per month between June and October. At that rate, the plant will reach capacity by the middle of 2004, Tysinger said.
CSP officials said the results are significant not only for their company but also for the restaurant industry. Most fried foods sold in restaurants are partially fried by the manufacturer in oils containing trans fats before being finished-fried at the restaurant. This is especially true for the billions of pounds of French fries sold each year through the nation’s fast-food chains.
“ I’m not one who set out to change the world, but this is something that will help,” Tysinger said. “Fried foods are still fried foods, so we don’t say it’s healthy fried food, but we do say healthier.”
Emory is excited not only about CSP’s product but also its potential impact on rural Duplin County. The plant — “totally green,” Emory said, generating no waste products — provides 15 jobs, a market for locally grown soybeans and quality products for restaurants, food manufacturers and the livestock industry.
Emory has worked to secure grant funds to help Farkas continue his research. While CSP offered to pay for the research and to provide free oil, Farkas refused, concerned about the potential for biasing the study — or at least creating the perception of bias.
Farkas is now exploring the possibility of testing Whole Harvest outside of his laboratories in Schaub Hall. While Whole Harvest users have reported that the oil lasts at least twice as long as partially hydrogenated oils used in frying and that foods absorb less of it, Farkas couldn’t confirm that with his earlier test. So, with funding from the N.C. Agricultural Advancement Consortium, he is planning to work with his students to continue the research at N.C. State’s dining hall, where Whole Harvest is used.
Farkas, who normally conducts more basic research into thermal processing, is a bit bashful about the attention he’s gotten over relatively simple food experiments. Several university administrators recently traveled to Duplin County to hear about CSP and the College’s role in helping the company, and newspaper stories and trade publications have reported the results. Still, he’s proud of the tangible contribution he and his students have made through the cooking oil study.
This is exactly what N.C. State is here to do,” Farkas said. “We
are here to help consumers and to help agriculture in the state.”