LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Next time you buy potato chips, take a look at the list of ingredients. There's a good chance that, right after potatoes, you'll see: sunflower oil. But before the state flower of Kansas became the favorite oil of the potato chip industry, it had to take a long detour through the Soviet Union. NPR's Dan Charles is here to tell the tale.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's a curious fact. Very few of the crops that we grow for food actually came, originally, from North America.
GERALD SEILER: We have cranberries, pecans, some blueberries and then sunflower.
CHARLES: Gerald Seiler works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sunflower Research Unit in Fargo, North Dakota.
SEILER: I always call the sunflower one of our native sons, because, you know, we are the center of origin of this crop.
CHARLES: Before Columbus ever arrived here, Native Americans selected from among the dozens of wild sunflowers that grew here and created tall plants with a single large head and seeds you can eat.
After that, though, the sunflower found itself neglected. This native son had to go abroad to find love and respect. Early Spanish explorers took it home with them. It spread across Europe. Van Gogh painted its portrait. And finally, it was the Russians who adopted it. They turned this native American plant into one of the world's great sources of cooking oil.
Why Russia? Gerry Miller, who was a sunflower breeder at the Fargo research center until he retired a few years ago, says it was partly religion. The Russian Orthodox Church had a list of foods that you weren't supposed to eat during lent. That included butter and lard.
DR. JERRY MILLER: But it just happened that sunflower was such a new crop that it was not on the prohibited list. And so, when whey discovered that they could use sunflower, it just – it blossomed.
CHARLES: In the 1800s, sunflowers covered huge fields in Russia and Ukraine. And then, under Stalin, Soviet plant breeders made these little oil factories even more productive. They created varieties with more oil in their seeds, almost 50 percent more. Sunflower oil filled grocery shelves across Europe.
Brent Hulke, who's now the USDA's sunflower breeder in Fargo, says this oil tastes great.
DR. BRENT HULKE: In Europe, if you run across an oil snob, they'll tell you which are the best olive oils. And then, secondly, they'll tell you which are the best sunflower oils.
CHARLES: But in the U.S., sunflower oil couldn't compete with corn and soybean oil, which are cheaper. Then came the 1990s and sunflowers got a boost from somewhere they never expected: Potato chip makers.
MILLER: This all started with what was called the Mediterranean Diet.
CHARLES: Jerry Miller says olive oil was in, trans fats were on their way out. And companies like Frito-Lay were asking if people don't want to eat trans fat-filled partially hydrogenated soybean oil, how are we going to fry our potato chips?
Jerry Miller had an answer. The Russians, he told them, had created a mutant sunflower; one that produced oil that was still good for you and didn't go bad while frying potato chips. So, no trans fats.
Frito-Lay had a chemist named Monoj Gupta, who recognized - immediately - what it could do for his company. And he said, let's go; let's do this.
Today, farmers in the U.S. produce only this new kind of sunflower oil and the potato chip industry can't get enough of it.
For an encore, the sunflower may be going where no oil seed has gone before. Right now, in the greenhouses of the USDA's Sunflower Research Center in Fargo, Brent Hulke is growing sunflowers with yet another genetic trait. These plants may eventually produce oil that's lower in saturated fat than any other vegetable oil.
The genes for low levels of saturated fat, they came from sunflowers that were collected in Hungary and Egypt
SEILER: It's just so fascinating that something like that could exist on the landscape and you just don't even know it.
CHARLES: Which brings us back to the USDA's Gerald Seiler, the man who calls the sunflower, America's Native Son. He's pretty sure there are more genetic treasures like this still out there, in cultivated sunflowers all over the world and in the whole extended family of sunflowers growing wild - from Texas to Canada.
For the past 40 years, he's been driving country roads, stopping to gather sunflower seeds. And he deposits the seeds in storage vaults like this one at his research center in Fargo.
SEILER: Basically it's a big refrigerator - a big cold room.
CHARLES: He shows me row after row of metal and plastic boxes. Each one holds hundreds of seed samples. And I notice a lot of these boxes have the name Seiler on them.
SEILER: This is my life here. This is 30-some years of work in here.
CHARLES: Each seed is a package of genes the Seiler wants to preserve, because those genes, Seiler says, they're like nuggets of gold. Their true value is still waiting to be discovered.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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