Breeding a better peanut butter

A new variety of peanut, called OLé, could be healthier, have a longer shelf life, and be more resistant to disease in the field according to a team of researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Oklahoma State University.

But just how is all this possible? A recent article states that this variety of peanut has oleic acid to thank. The OLé peanut is a variety of Spanish peanut that’s engineered to have a few key new attributes. Spanish peanuts are most easily visually identified due to their papery red skins, but there are other differences as well. They tend to be smaller, and they also have a much higher oil content, which gives them a nuttier, richer flavor that is sought after in products such as peanut candy, salted peanuts and peanut butter.

The OLé peanuts are what’s known as a high-oleic peanut, meaning that they have a boosted amount of oleic acid, a fatty acid that’s also present in olive oil, compared with other types of fatty acids. That higher level of oleic acid is useful as it increases shelf life and it’s been linked with various health benefits including better heart health, decreases in blood pressure, and alleviation of some symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

This is big news to the peanut industry as recent statistics show, American’s spend approximately $800 million a year on peanut butter and peanuts contribute more than $4 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

While high-oleic peanuts have been in cultivation for a number of years, recently seed stock contamination and other logistical issues had led to a shortage of high-oleic peanuts of the Spanish market-type.

“The peanut industry [found itself] in urgent need of a replacement high-oleic Spanish cultivar with acceptable seed size, yield and disease resistance package,” Kelly Chamberlin, a Research Biologist with the USDA, said in the article. “The OLé peanut was developed to meet this pressing need.”

The relatively high amounts of oleic acid, compared to another fatty acid called linoleic acid, in OLé peanuts increases their shelf life tremendously. Unsaturated fatty acids, like oleic and linoleic acid, contain one or more double bonds between carbon atoms. Fats can go rancid when these double bonds break down, the article states.

“Basically what we are doing is changing the chemistry of the seed so the peanuts do not go rancid as rapidly,” Chamberlin said in the article. “That increases the shelf life of the peanut product by up to 10 times.”

Chamberlin also noted that there is a big demand in the industry for these peanuts and there is a premium paid at the buying point for them, which makes a big difference for farmers and their overall profits.

The OLé variety also helps farmers and the environment by being significantly more resistant to diseases including Sclerotinia blight and pod rot, which are fungal, soil-borne diseases that can devastate peanut fields. Although they have increased diseases resistance, Chamberlin said she labels its yield per hectare as “acceptable” and continues to work on working on varieties that have higher yields, by at least a thousand pounds per acre.

“We are always trying to improve on every characteristic,” she added.

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