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Other Oils in North Dakota
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Matthew Picklo

We are all aware of the economic impact that the Bakken oil has had on our state and country. But how many know about the other oil produced here?

This oil is the kind you eat - in salad dressings, baked goods and in fried and saut?ed foods. North Dakota produces the major food oils in our diets: from crops grown right here: soybeans, sunflowers, canola and flax. Many of the foods we eat contain these oils - typically providing 30 percent of our daily calories.

The nutritional values of food oils are determined by the amounts and types of fatty acids each contains. These are described according to the ways their constituent carbon atoms are linked; those with no double bonds being "saturated", those with one double bond being "monounsaturated" and those with several double bonds being "polyunsaturated acids".  Plant oils can contain mixtures of fatty acids most of which are of the polyunsaturated type.

The preponderance of polyunsaturated fatty acids makes plant oils important in supporting good health.  Research has shown that diets containing less saturated fats and more mono- and poly-unsaturates are associated with lower risk for heart disease. This is the basis of the health value attributed to the "Mediterranean" diet, which emphasizes plant oils rich in monounsaturated fats. 

Sunflower and canola oils are good sources of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, and they have relatively low amounts of saturated fats.  This makes them healthy alternatives to coconut oil, palm oil and lard, which are high in saturates. 
The fatty acids in food oils are used by our bodies in several ways.  They provide fuel for daily activities, structure for our cells, and as metabolic signals between cells.  Our bodies can make some fatty acids (the saturates and oleic acid), but we must obtain the polyunsaturates from our diets. 

The polyunsaturates are particularly important; they are involved in regulating blood pressure, the immune system, visual development and learning.  One polyunsaturate, alpha-linolenic acid, is thought to be particularly beneficial to heart health. Flaxseed and canola oils are good sources of this fatty acid; both are now being used to enrich margarines and peanut butters.

The physical characteristics of various oils suit them for different food uses.  Oils high in saturates can be used for frying because they are very stabile to heat, which can cause high-polyunsaturated oils to smoke and become rancid.  For this reason, soybean  and corn oils have limited frying lives. Recently, many food companies have shifted to using high oleic sunflower oil because it has better stability for frying.  Because flaxseed oil is very high in polyunsaturates, it is used for baking but not frying.

USDA scientists are actively studying how to improve oils for food use.  For example, breeds of sunflower have been developed with higher levels of oleic acid to be suitable for frying.

The USDA provides a free, interactive tool called SuperTracker at:  Under the Food-A-Pedia tab, you can see the fatty acids found in the oils you use and the foods you eat.