updated 9/9/2004 2:59:34 PM ET 2004-09-09T18:59:34

Some farmers are placing their hope in a hybrid sunflower seed that could help keep arteries clear and hearts pumping in a nation smitten with snacks and processed food.

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“It’s a healthier oil,” said Willie Wieck, 62, who started growing sunflowers on his 450 acres in the Texas Panhandle in the early 1970s. He switched to the new hybrid seed called NuSun a couple of years ago. It’s free of unhealthy trans-fatty acids and increasingly is catching on as a cash crop.

“It’s certainly a brighter spot out there,” Wieck said. “They’re a good crop.”

NuSun is primarily sold to big food processors — not on grocery shelves — and it’s already used in some snack foods. Sunflower growers are counting on a big demand in the next few years thanks to new food labeling rules.

Beginning in 2006, food packages must say how much trans fat is in a product; the only labeling clue now is the mention of “hydrogenated oils.”

Trans fats linked to heart disease
The Food and Drug Administration approved the trans fat labeling 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.

Trans fats are found in vegetable shortenings, and in some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, salad dressings and other processed foods. Studies indicate trans fats contribute to higher levels of LDL cholesterol — the bad kind — which can raise the risk of coronary heart disease, which kills more than 500,000 Americans each year.

NuSun, which is not a genetically modified hybrid, was developed by federal scientists in North Dakota about eight years ago. Shortly after its introduction in 1998, consumers began eating chips and other snacks fried in the oil.

The seed didn’t get much fanfare at its introduction, mostly because there were not large quantities available, said John Sandbakken, a spokesman for the Bismarck, N.D.-based National Sunflower Association.

Optimism about the NuSun marketplace got a boost with the FDA ruling and from results of a nutritional study by Penn State researchers that indicated that NuSun compared favorably with olive oil for health benefits. The research also suggested the sunflower oil could help lower cholesterol levels.

The National Sunflower Association, which has trademarked NuSun, is conducting a survey that is expected to show about half the 1.9 million sunflower acres planted in the United States this year are NuSun, executive director Larry Kleingartner said.

Before NuSun, sunflower growers had long been dependent on selling their oil in volatile markets overseas, exporting about 80 percent. Now, about 70 percent of the oil stays in the United States, Sandbakken said.

Texas ranks seventh in the nation for sunflower production, with 44,000 acres of different varieties planted this year. Other sunflower-producing states include North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, and California.

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