MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
An icon of the American kitchen is changing its recipe. The makers of Crisco announced this week that they've reformulated the classic shortening to virtually eliminate artery clogging trans fats.
BLOCK: Restaurants are also under pressure to switch to healthier cooking oil. New York is banning trans fats beginning in July. And next week, Los Angeles will consider a similar move.
NORRIS: Some fast food chains, like Wendy's and KFC, are already changing their oil. McDonald's says it's still searching for a trans fat-free alternative that won't change the taste of its French fries.
NPR's Scott Horsley put together this report on the challenge of finding a healthier cooking oil, a search that begins in the soybean fields of the Midwest.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Walter Fehr's first encounter with the soybean did not end happily. It happened some 50 years ago on Fehr's family farm in Northern Minnesota, just 100 miles from the Canadian border.
Professor WALTER FEHR (Iowa State University): The (unintelligible) even thought about them. And so they asked some of us in the 4-H pub if we would grow these weird things. So one of my visions that I can see from my past are these half-mile long roads of soybean with grassy weeds all over them, on my hands and knees, trying to pull the weeds out of these beans. It was like a nightmare.
HORSLEY: Despite that inauspicious beginning, Fehr, who is now professor of agriculture, has devoted most of his career to breeding soybeans - for tofu, soymilk and especially, for oil.
Bottles of specialty oil line the window in his office at Iowa State University. Nearly 80 percent of all the oil that's used for cooking and baking in this country comes from soybeans. But in their natural state, soybeans have a problem, a high concentration of linolenic acid, which makes their oil spoil quickly.
Professor FEHR: It just doesn't have the shelf life that you would like to have in products. And that's the reason that they switched many years ago to hydrogenation.
HORSLEY: Hydrogenation extends shelf life. It was the basis early in the last century for what was touted as an absolutely new product, something the American housewife has always needed.
(Soundbite of Crisco commercial)
Mr. SANDY BECKER (Actor): This is Sandy Becker saying, keep cooking with Crisco. It's all vegetable. It's digestible.
HORSLEY: The original Crisco and other partially hydrogenated oils offer a lot of advantages. They make fried food crispy. They can be used over and over again. And they're inexpensive.
But partial hydrogenation also creates trans fats, which we now know raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. So Walter Fehr has been busy breeding a soybean that doesn't need hydrogenation to stay fresh.
(Soundbite of laboratory robot)
In Fehr's laboratory at Iowa State, a robot feeds crushed soybeans into a gas chromatograph, looking for samples with unusually low amounts of that spoiler, linolenic acid.
Professor FEHR: This is sample 21,051. We're looking at about 100,000 different genetic possibilities a year, and out of those, we only get about 5 percent that we actually take on. So it's a very laborious process to breed these things.
HORSLEY: After decades of conventional breeding, Fehr developed a line of soybeans that have just one percent linolenic acid. But breeding these low-lin soybeans was only half the battle. Fehr also had to find farmers willing to grow the soybeans and processors willing to squeeze the oil out of them. Finally, he had to prove to restaurants that low-lin soybean oil would work in a large-scale, commercial environment.
Ms. CAROL PEARSON (Iowa State University): We're standing in the entrance to the Union Drive Market Place, here on the campus at Iowa State University. And we serve about 2,500 students here at lunch and again at dinnertime.
HORSLEY: Assistant director Carol Pearson says Iowa State's residential dining halls have been cooking their French fries in Professor Fehr's low-lin oil for the last couple of years now, using fryers just like the ones in fast food restaurants.
Dining hall manager Erica Bierman says in head to head performance tests, the trans fat-free oil actually lasted twice as long as old fashioned hydrogenated oil.
Ms. ERICA BIERMAN (Iowa State University): We noticed that we didn't have to change the oil every week. We started testing to see how far we could hold the oil and it ended up being about two weeks.
HORSLEY: Another key consideration for restaurants is the texture and taste of food once it has been fried in oil. KFC rejected a trans fat-free canola oil because it hid the flavor of the chicken's 11 herbs and spices. McDonald's says it backed away from a trans fat-free oil in 2002 because the French fries didn't taste right.
That's why the big food processor Archer Daniels Midland employs a full-time sensory panel to test ingredients like cooking oil before they go to market.
Mr. MARK MATLOCK (Archer Daniels Midland): This is culinary center, and here is where our research chefs work with our ingredients to see how those ingredients will work. One of the really important things with food is it has to taste good. It's better if it's more nutritious, but it has to taste good.
HORSLEY: Research Vice President Mark Matlock says ADM has been working on its own line of trans fat-free oils for both restaurants and packaged food companies. A test tube bubbling away in the company's laboratory bears the name of the doughnut chain Krispy Kreme.
Matlock says it's just as well that food makers have not switched away from trans fat-filled oils in one fell swoop. Given the amount of oil used throughout the country, he says, the industry needs time to adjust.
Mr. MATLOCK: If everybody banned trans all at once, it would create some shortages, potentially, of the naturally stable oils.
HORSLEY: One of the biggest challenges for a company of McDonald's size is ensuring an adequate supply of oil. And at the moment, there aren't enough low-lin soybeans to go around. If all the restaurants in the country were to make the switch, they would need about 12.5 million acres of soybeans - an area the size of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined.
Last year, less than one million acres of the special soybeans were planted. The acreage is expanding, but raising the soybeans and keeping them separate from ordinary beans takes extra effort. And professor Fehr says not every farmer is willing to do that.
Professor FEHR: The farmer is going to be the one who decides whether or not this is going to work in soybeans, pure and simple. And the challenge right now for the 2007 crop is whether or not enough farmers are going to be willing to grow these beans.
HORSLEY: Farmers do receive a premium for growing low-lin soybeans. But this year, they might make even more money growing plain old corn, thanks to the growing demand for the gasoline additive ethanol. That presents a dilemma for growers like Dan Allen, who farms a few thousand acres in Iowa's Madison County.
Mr. DAN ALLEN: I don't think we've figured out what we're going to grow. With the profitability of corn increasing, they're going to have to actually pay some real dollars in order to buy the beans to fill their contracts.
HORSLEY: The young low-lin soybean industry will only succeed if the price is low enough for restaurants and high enough for farmers. Allen says when planting time comes in April, he'll grow whichever crop makes the most money. But he's crossing his fingers that the low-lin soybeans catch on. After all, he says, I eat french fries, too.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.
NORRIS: That distinctive French fry taste that many of us crave actually came about by accident. You can find a brief history of why fries taste so good at NPR.org.