A new breed of corn that mixes the conventional seed with a bright-blooming relative offers the promise of helping prevent clogged arteries and reducing harmful cholesterol.
Corn oil and other food products with this heart-healthy strain as an ingredient could appear on supermarket shelves in the world within four years.
The breakthrough after 10 years of research could lead plant breeders to develop other healthy varieties such as popcorn and yellow sweet corn.
Scientists bred corn with Eastern gama grass, a purple or orange-bloomed plant, and came up with a corn high in oleic fatty acid -- a type of unsaturated fat that raises levels of good cholesterol to prevent arteries from clogging.
Oleic acid also lowers the bad cholesterol that damages the heart.
Susan Duvick, a plant biologist who led the project, said conventional corn contains about 20 percent oleic acid and 60 percent polyunsaturated fat, which is considered healthy by nutritionists though not as beneficial as oleic. Conventional corn also has 10 percent of the harmful saturated fat.
The new corn lines contain less polyunsaturated fat -- just 20 percent -- while the oleic acid content climbs to 70 percent. The new breed still contains 10 percent saturated fat.
The flavor from the new corn is said to be similar to conventional corn oil, which is bland. Also, corn with high oleic acid will have a longer shelf-live than conventional corn oil.
Refiners make corn oil by soaking corn in hot water for 40 hours to break down the starch and protein, according to the industry. It is ground to separate the corn germ -- an oval-shaped nub in the kernel -- from which oil is extracted. The residue is saved for making animal feed. The oil is sold to food processors to use as an ingredient for other products or is sold as cooking oil.
Scientists are waiting for a patent approval, expected next month. After that, seed companies can apply for a license to sell it to farmers.
Food processors also are interested in healthful ingredients that can provide benefits for weight-conscientious consumers.