By juggling the molecular structure of soy oil, the team of scientists have developed a substance that is rich in conjugated linoleic acid.
Andrew Proctor, professor of food science, and graduate student Vishal Jain claim that studies have shown that CLA can give the immune system a boost.
The two scientists have now used the converted oil to produce potato chips that contain high concentrations of CLA.
"It is still important to have a low fat diet and we do not propose increasing the fat intake, but a few chips will provide needed CLA," said Proctor.
"Our goal is to develop a popular food item that offers high concentrations of CLA without increasing saturated fat intake.
"Potato chips suit this purpose well. Subsequent studies may include development of high-CLA salad oils and dressings."
Trans fats, which are mainly found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, common ingredients in thousands of food products, have been negatively linked to raising blood cholesterol levels and promoting heart disease.
Research shows that when too much 'bad' cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain resulting in atherosclerosis.
But Proctor said that their process uses only refined soy oil, which does not introduce the health risks associated with hydrogenated oils. When CLA is synthesized, the result is a trans fat oil with health benefits.
CLA occurs naturally in beef and dairy products, but at such low levels that no benefit is obtained in a normal, healthy diet, Proctor said. In an earlier experiment, Proctor found that CLA could be synthesized in soy oil by irradiating it with ultraviolet and visible light, although that first process still produced only low amounts, similar to that present in beef and dairy.
Proctor and Jain experimented with an instrument that exposes oil to UV light more evenly and produces significantly higher CLA content of soybean oil. The photo-irradiated oil contains 25 percent CLA, Proctor said. Beef and dairy products contain less than 1 percent.
Proctor has received a $275,000 USDA grant to build a pilot plant that will process a greater volume of oil in less time. Jain is working on the project for his doctoral thesis and expects to have the experimental plant up and running by the end of January.
Proctor said other graduate students are working on related projects, looking for other ways to take advantage of the photo irradiation process.
Proctor is also working with an attorney to explore labeling requirements for food products containing trans fatty acids. Existing labels required for all foods containing trans fats would not indicate the healthier nature of CLA-rich oils.