Creating long-lasting, healthful food oils

New soybean oils omit dangerous trans fats

For more than a century, food manufacturers have preserved unstable food oils by converting them into shortenings and margarines through the Nobel Prize-winning process of partial hydrogenation. The problem is, the process also creates trans fats, which researchers and regulators have come to link with heart disease.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Washington State University molecular biochemist John Browse found a way to use modern breeding techniques to stop soybean plants from producing unstable fatty acids. Dupont and Monsanto are now developing “next-generation” soybeans whose oils can have a long shelf life but not contain dangerous trans fats. The United Soybean Board estimates the new crops could increase farmer earnings by more than $1 billion.

Central to this discovery was Browse’s work on lipids, fatty molecules that give structure to cells and their component parts while playing important roles in how the cells function. Browse looks at how the various compositions of lipids in cell membranes affect how they work.

It’s fundamental research aimed at understanding the biology of living cells, but it is yielding a number of valuable applications. In addition to the work on stable oils, Browse’s lab has seen how a particular blend of lipids is needed for a cell’s chloroplast to convert sunlight to energy while converting carbon dioxide into other compounds. A deeper understanding of this process can help crops better use sunlight under varying conditions, including those that could come as the world’s climate changes.