Around 75 percent of the sunflower seeds grown globally are crushed for their oil. And for discerning growers and processors, as well as health-conscious consumers, the nutritional quality of that sunflower oil matters.
For Nuseed, this means a focus on developing sunflower hybrids with high oleic acid content. Oleic acid is the monounsaturated fatty acid that is one of the key ingredients in the healthy Mediterranean diet, with proven cardiovascular benefits. Monounsaturates can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which lowers risk of heart disease and stroke.
In the US market there are currently two healthy sunflower oil nutrition classifications: “Nusun” where heart-healthy oleic levels range from 55% to 75% (about the same as olive oil), or “high oleic”, where oleic levels are more than 82%.
But with the help of the world’s finest plant breeders and agronomists, Nuseed is achieving higher levels of oleic acid than ever before by advancing traditional plant breeding.
Higher oleic sunflower oil means access to speciality markets
Nuseed North America’s Sunflower Agronomic Leader Alison Pokrzywinski says that there has been notably greater demand for higher oleic sunflower oil hybrids over the last few years.
Nuseed’s N4H302 E hybrid, created through backcrossing high oleic trait donor plants with Nuseed’s elite sunflower lines, is answering that demand with a consistently excellent oleic content.
With excellent herbicide tolerance incorporated, and great early season emergence, the N4H302 E hybrid is attractive to growers and processors as it allows access to higher value markets.
“With high oleic sunflower oil, our goal is usually about 85 percent oleic acid but in the right settings N4H302 E is often coming in at over 88 percent allowing it to be sold into specialty markets, which processors will pay more for,” says Pokrzywinski.
These speciality markets vary and are not always food — for example, the cosmetic industry is increasingly interested in paying a premium for sunflower oil that’s very high in oleic acid, because of its chemical stability and high content of the antioxidant vitamin E.
Total oil content matters
Along with having a high oleic acid content, another valuable trait for sunflowers is high total oil.
This is a trickier trait to develop according to Jim Gerdes PhD, Nuseed’s R&D Director – Sunflower and Trait Development.
“The trait for high oleic is relatively easy to work with as it’s controlled by one major gene and some modifiers. But for total oil content it’s a bit more trial and error as there’s a more complex set of genes involved,” Gerdes explains.
Nevertheless, Nuseed has successfully accomplished this with the N4H470 CLP hybrid, which not only has a high oil content (over 45 percent) but has some hardy agronomics, including excellent stalk and root strength, Clearfield® Plus herbicide tolerance, and downy mildew resistance.
“For every increment of 1 percent oil above the 40 percent mark farmers can receive a premium sometimes reaching double, so the N4H470 CLP is a very attractive option for them,” says Gerdes. “It’s basically just much better and more efficient for processors when they can run a given amount of sunflower seeds through processing, but get more oil out.”
State-of-the-art breeding program
Behind the nutritional and product trait advancements that Nuseed has made with their sunflower hybrids is an expert breeding team and sunflower nursery based in Breckenridge, MN, with breeding support and a state-of-the-art molecular R&D at the Nuseed Innovation Center in West Sacramento, California.
The team has created a genetic map to follow traits of interest more efficiently through a traditional plant breeding program. Proprietary techniques were developed allowing a decrease in the cycle time and increase in the number of generations produced each year resulting in the ability to bring new varieties and traits to the market much quicker.
Extra backing from regional R&D and breeding teams across all Nuseed’s global sunflower-growing regions, also means an unrivalled ability to respond to more localized issues‚ such as region-specific diseases.
Orobanche is one example. “This is a parasitic disease specific to Europe and particularly the big sunflower growing regions of Ukraine and Russia,” Pokrzywinski explains. “However, we’ve already been able to produce some orobanche-resistant varieties and are working on further advancements.”
Future nutritional enhancements
A further nutritional enhancement being investigated by the Nuseed team is reduced saturated fat content. Although the saturated fat in sunflower oil is already low (saturates are linked with raised cholesterol levels), there’s still room for more improvement.
“We are working towards a substantial reduction on current typical saturated fat levels to approximately half of any currently available commercial sunflower oil and also bump up oleic levels,” Gerdes explains.
Nuseed has also started to develop some capabilities around the protein content of sunflower.
Though upping protein could potentially be an advantage for confection markets supplying whole sunflower seeds for human consumption, the bigger opportunity is actually in the oilseed side.
“Plant based proteins are of significant interest to the vegan market for example, so higher protein content and quality would fit this space and increase the value of the sunflower meal after the oil has been extracted,” Gerdes explains.
“So far the indications for producing seeds with higher protein are quite promising — we’re seeing a lot of natural protein content variation in our commercial hybrids, which I think gives us what we need to work with.”