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GreenSpace: DuPont develops new cooking oil from genetically-modified soybeans

For 37 years - since 1977 - breaded and fried white mushrooms have been a favorite in the food court at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

For 37 years - since 1977 - breaded and fried white mushrooms have been a favorite in the food court at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Between that and other mushroom goodies, including cream of mushroom soup and marinated mushroom salad, visitors annually eat 3.5 tons of mushrooms at the show, which will run Jan. 10 to 17 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.

This year, things will be a little different.

The cooks in the mushroom area will be using a new oil that proponents say tastes better than other oils, lasts longer (meaning fewer cooking stoppages for clean-outs), and is more healthful.

Nearby, the state potato growers will be cooking French fries in the new oil. The Dairymen's Association will fry its cheese cubes in it. Also in the oil: deep-fried veggies, chicken breasts, nuggets, and wings.

Made by DuPont Pioneer from genetically modified soybeans, the new oil may have the potential to shift, at least a little, the debate over foods made from genetically-modified organisms. Until now, the main beneficiaries of GMO crops have been farmers, who get new methods of weed and pest control. The new oil directly benefits consumers.

Called Plenish, it has zero trans fat, which is a double whammy for heart health because it raises your "bad" cholesterol and lowers your "good" kind. Plenish also has 20 percent less saturated fat - another "bad" cholesterol booster - than conventional soy oil. And, like olive oil, it is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

But what ultimately sold Gale Ferranto is the flavor. Or, rather, the lack of one.

"You can taste the mushrooms, not the oil," said Ferranto, president of Buona Foods, the mushroom company in tiny Landenberg, southern Chester County, that is managing the food court's mushroom section.

The oil, introduced to the restaurant and food industries several years ago, has caught on slowly and, so far at least, is not available in supermarkets.

An early adopter, not surprisingly, was the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington. Executive chef Kevin Miller said the kitchen uses the oil not just in the fryers, where it gives "a cleaner taste and a nice, crisp crust." Unless he specifically wants the taste of olive oil in a salad dressing, Miller said, he'll use Plenish.

Because it has a higher smoke point, the kitchen uses it for sautéing, too. "We really like the oil," Miller said. "We like what it does for us."

If you go to the Farm Show (, look for informational signage in the food court - and, not far away in the Today's Agriculture area, an exhibit with the new soybeans in various growth stages.

Susan Knowlton, a senior research manager at DuPont in Wilmington who has worked on the project for years, calls it "the reinvention of soybean oil." As concerns grew about trans fats, she told reporters at a company event in November, "we could see this coming - the implications of cardiovascular risk."

Sure enough, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required trans fat to be included on Nutrition Facts labels starting in 2006. New York City soon acted to eliminate it from most restaurants, followed swiftly by Philadelphia and the state of California. Trans fats began a steep decline.

Trans fats are created when oils are hydrogenated - treated with hydrogen - to extend the shelf life of products they're used in. But by turning off a particular gene in the soybean plant, DuPont Pioneer made a soybean with a higher concentration of oleic acids, which are more stable. The oil from them, called high oleic oil, doesn't have to be hydrogenated.

The new oil could have wide implications. Soybean oil represents about 60 percent of all oil consumed in the United States today. It is used in commercial fryers and in baking.

Plenish - as well as a similar product in the Monsanto pipeline - also is seen as a boon for soy farmers. Chester County's Bill Beam normally grows about 1,200 acres of soybeans near Elverson. Last summer, he planted 25 acres in Plenish beans. They grew just the same as conventional beans, he said, but he sold them for 50 cents more per bushel. Currently, a bushel of conventional beans sells for about $10.50.

"I see it as a win-win for everyone," said Beam, who chairs the Pennsylvania Soybean Board.

The United Soybean Board has set a goal of 18 million acres of high oleic soybeans by 2023, which would make the beans the fourth largest crop in the U.S., behind corn, conventional soybeans, and wheat.

But critics of GMO technology are unimpressed.

Patricia Lovera, assistant director at Food and Water Watch, a national nonprofit, said she's concerned about the federal government's regulatory process. "They are dealing with old regulations to try to approve new technologies," she said, adding that the review "is not thorough enough to look at any number of unintended consequences."

Lovera said the industry is "hyping" the consumer benefits. "Right now, what they're trying to do is make people feel better about fried foods. We need to have a conversation about a healthy diet. Instead, they're saying,'we can fix that with our magic soybeans.' "

Sam Bernhardt, Pennsylvania organizer for her advocacy group, said a state legislative effort to require labeling of food containing GMO products garnered solid support in 2014, but did not pass. He expects the measure to be reintroduced this year.

As for Plenish, Knowlton and others say that because it is so heat-resistant it might even replace some petroleum-based lubricants in industrial and automotive uses.

So at some point, you may find it in your car as well as in your fried mushrooms.