Meadowfoam Fills a Niche
Close-up of meadowfoam.
Alternative crop yields biodegradable oil for cosmetics and industrial
Far away from any department store cosmetics counter grows an underused
ingredient that promises to give us smoother, younger looking skin. That
ingredient is meadowfoam oil.
Mainly grown in Oregon, meadowfoam is a 10- to 18-inch-tall flowering plant.
Grass-seed farmers who are no longer allowed to burn their fields are now
planting meadowfoam as an alternative crop on some of that acreage.
One incentive for growing meadowfoam is that U.S. consumers spend about
$27.1 billion each year on beauty products. Meadowfoam seeds give up a light,
high-quality natural oil that can be used by the cosmetics industry as an
emollient to soften or smooth the skin.
"Because of the better moisturizing properties of these compounds, I
expect they will be highly valued by the cosmetics industry," says ARS
chemist Terry A. Isbell.
The oil also has potential industrial applications as a biodegradable
lubricant. Isbell and other researchers at ARS' National Center for
Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois, have received one patent
and applied for three more on new meadowfoam oil compounds and the processes
for making them.
Currently, more acreage is being planted in meadowfoam. That's why
applications for the oil are being developed. The ARS new crops research is
providing the information needed to make meadowfoam an economically viable
Just 3 years ago, meadowfoam growers were perplexed by an unusual problem: a
cloudy look in oil from the 1993 and 1994 crops. Buyers in the cosmetics
industry wanted to know if the unknown substance in the oil could possibly be
Isbell and coworkers found that the cloudy appearance was caused by a
nontoxic wax. Their recommended processing changes saved meadowfoam growers
about $2 million in lost sales to the cosmetics industry, which has strict
requirements for oils used in certain cosmetics.
ARS researchers, who began their studies of meadowfoam oil in the 1950's,
discovered that the oil is 20 times more stable than soybean oil. That means it
doesn't deteriorate as readily when exposed to air.
Isbell receives meadowfoam oil from the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers
Association and the Fanning Corporation, a maker of cosmetics oils, in Chicago,
Illinois. Fanning and ARS have a cooperative research and development agreement
to test the oils usefulness in cosmetics.
Retired ARS chemist Kenneth Carlson in Peoria developed steps that could be
used during processing to turn off an enzyme in meadowfoam seed that caused the
oil to have a sulfurlike odor. Carlson's technology was successfully adopted
and used by meadowfoam processors.
"While yields of meadowfoam are about 1,000 pounds per acre, we've seen
improvements in the oil content, which has stabilized at about 30
percent," says Isbell.
This accomplishment occurred as the result of ARS-supported research
performed by scientists in Oregon State University's plant breeding program.
ARS funding and seed analysis thus helped boost meadowfoam oil production to
the highest level in history. -- By Linda Cooke, ARS.
Isbell is in the USDA-ARS New Crops and Processing Technology Research
Unit, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, IL; phone