Widely recognised as a superior quality oil compared to rape seed and palm oil, sunflower stocks for 2004/2005 are forecast to be lower than last year, coming in at 25.5 million tonnes, a 5.5 per cent drop on last year's 27 million ton harvest.
"In August last year sunflower oil cost $540 a ton, this compares to $600 a ton in August this year," Josh Dadd at the UK's Home Grown Cereals Authority explained to FoodNavigator.com.
This 10 per cent rise in price will be felt by food processors starting to use sunflower oil in some snack foods in a bid to cut the trans fat content, a potentially harmful fatty acid, out of their food formulations.
Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a chemical process called hydrogenation. Common in a range of food products - biscuits, chips, doughnuts, crackers - the hydrogenated vegetable fat is used by food processors because it is solid at room temperature and has a longer shelf life.
But research suggests that trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease.
From the beginning of 2006, food packages must say how much trans fat is in a product; the only labelling clue now is the mention of 'hydrogenated oils.' The Food and Drug Administration approved the trans fat labelling requirement last year, saying the change could prevent up to 1,200 cases of heart disease and 500 deaths a year as people choose healthier foods or manufacturers change recipes.
Sunflower seed growers are counting on a big demand in the next few years thanks to the new food labelling rules in the US. Sunflower crops are dependent on four key global areas. Russia is the leading producer, with an estimated 4.5 million tonnes this year, followed by the Ukraine, Argentina and the EU 25. According to Dad, the EU 25 is forecast to hit the number two slot.
Replacing the role of a partially hydrogenated fat in terms of aerating, emulsifying, lubricating, and providing textural, structural and flavour characteristics is a challenge for food developers.
Increasing numbers of ingredients suppliers are rolling out replacements for the TFAs. Earlier this year Danish ingredients firm Danisco claimed its emulsifier/oil blends fit the bill.
"These emulsifier blends with mixtures of non-hydrogenated oil offer the same properties as a partially hydrogenated shortening in most systems," said Jim Doucet, technical manager, emulsifiers at Danisco.
And Dutch nutritional oils and fats firm Loders Croklaan said it was looking to target market opportunities in the trans free market through its palm oil based ingredients. The company will break ground on a new plant in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
US firm Archer Daniels Midland has brought the NovaLipid zero and reduced trans-fat oils and shortenings to the alternative TFA market. According to ADM, NovaLipid's range of oils and shortenings can be used in margarine, baking, frying, confectionery, snack and cereal products. And JM Smucker recently introduced a shortening with zero grammes of trans fat.
"New Zero Grams Trans Fat Shortening is made from a patented blend of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oils to create a high-performance shortening with zero grams trans fat per serving," said the firm this year.
Brussels has yet to propose an equivalent for Europe, but on a national level certain countries are starting to make trans free moves. From the beginning of June last year Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids. Oils and fat are now forbidden on the Danish market if they contain trans fatty acids exceeding 2 per cent.