When a principal grain-based foods ingredient gains approval for a health claim, the industry should take notice. A successful Bunge North America petition to the Food and Drug Administration for soybean oil should generate precisely such interest.

Attacks against the healthfulness of bread and refined grains are incessant, ignorant and often insidious, but such slings are not unique to flour-based foods. To the contrary, essentially every prominent dietary energy source has been or remains the subject of intense criticism. Interests involved with grains, meat, dairy, eggs, sugar and fats all have struggled to counter caricatures of their products in the media or as lambasted by opportunistic authors of diet books.

The nature of attacks varies from one product category to the next. The oils and fats industry has been subjected to challenges arriving in waves, over the past generation, beginning with an assault on the healthfulness of animal fats followed in the 1980s by a move to reduce consumption of saturated fats. These shifts were followed by the widespread endorsement of low-fat eating in the 1990s, intense scrutiny of and ultimately the banning of added partially hydrogenated oils in the 2000s and claims beginning in about 2010 from some researchers who said saturated fats may not be as unhealthy as had been alleged in the 1980s.

It was against this backdrop that Bunge in February 2016 sought approval from the FDA for the industry’s food processing and restaurant customers to make qualified health claims linking consumption of soybean oil to reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The petition was approved last month.

Soybean oil is the leading edible oil in the United States. Even having lost share steadily over the past two decades, Americans consume more soybean oil than all the other shortenings/oils (cottonseed, peanut, corn, canola, palm, palm kernel and coconut oils and lard and edible tallow) combined. Still, the market share captured by soybean oil declined to just over 50 per cent in 2016 from 64 per cent in 2003. During this period, the corn oil share of the market nearly doubled to 11.2 per cent from 6.4 per cent, and the canola oil share more than doubled to 14.8 per cent, from 6 per cent. It is no coincidence that corn oil and canola oil, together with olive oil, previously were the only vegetable oils for which health claims had been allowed.  Together with the lack of a health claim approval, the lower prices of soybean oil historically when compared to alternative oils may have contributed to the perception soybean oil is somehow a less healthful option.

The health claim, approved by the FDA in July, represents an affirmation of what those in the scientific community who have consistently dedicated themselves to the study of fats for decades have long been advocating — namely that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats helps lower the risk of coronary heart disease.

“It’s a big deal any time a qualified health claim is approved,” said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition sciences at Penn State University, a former member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and an expert on the subject of fats and oils. She said that amid all shifts in views toward fats and oils over the last few decades, the recommendation from the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines Committee in favor of replacing saturated oils with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated alternatives has been consistent.

None of this negates the claims of alternatives such as canola oil or corn oil, but it may level the playing field for soybean oil. Whether Bunge’s move will translate into a halt or reversal of the declining market share of soybean oil remains to be seen. But endorsements of the move by members of the nutrition community and the American Soybean Association suggest the health claim may be quite helpful in efforts to cast a major food ingredient in an appropriately positive light.