The lucrative story of cotton seed oil

Cottonseed oil in a glass bottle on a wooden surface. Closeup

Looking back over the last 40 years, it’s hard to understand how we could have been so gullible. We believed that fat, and more specifically saturated fat (found primarily in animal foods), was thought to increase cholesterol and cause heart disease. Instead, we should switch to ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils, like cottonseed, corn, safflower and soy oils. But recent evidence suggests this was a Faustian bargain. The industrially processed seed oils were much, much worse. It was all a terrible mistake that began with Crisco.

Cotton plantations for fabric were cultivated in the United States as early as 1736. Prior to this, it was largely an ornamental plant. At first, most cotton was home-spun into garments, but the success of the crop meant that some could be exported to England. From a modest 600 pounds of cotton in 1784, it grew to over 200,000 by 1790. The invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 led to a staggering 40,000,000 pounds of cotton production.

Cottonseed But cotton is actually two crops – the fiber and the seed. For every 100 pounds of fiber, there was 162 pounds of cotton seeds which were largely useless. Only 5% of this seed was required for planting. Some could be used for livestock feed but there was still a mountain of garbage. What could be done with this garbage? Mostly it was left to rot or simply dumped illegally into rivers. It was toxic waste.

Meanwhile, in the 1820’s and 1830’s increased demand for oil used in cooking and lighting from a rising population and decreased supply of whale oil meant that prices rose steeply. Enterprising entrepreneurs tried to crush the worthless cotton seeds to extract the oil, but it was not until the 1850s that the technology matured to the point that commercial production could commence. But in 1859, something happened that would transform the modern world. Colonel Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 introducing a massive supply fossil fuels to the modern world. Before long, the demand for cottonseed oil for lighting had completely evaporated and cottonseeds went back to being classified as toxic waste.

From fabric to food

Cottonseed2With lots of cottonseed oil, but no demand, it was added illicitly to animal fats and lards. There was no evidence that this was, in any way safe for human consumption. We don’t eat our cotton T-shirts after all. Similarly, cottonseed oil, being light in flavor and slightly yellow was blended with olive oil to reduce costs. This led to Italy completely banning the adulterated American olive oil in 1883. The Proctor & Gamble company used cottonseed oil for the manufacture of candles and soap, but soon discovered that they could use a chemical process to partially hydrogenate cottonseed oil into a solid fat that resembled lard. This process produced what are now called ‘Trans’ fats, making this product extremely versatile in the kitchen, even if nobody actually knew whether we should be shoving this former toxic waste into our mouths.

It made pastry flakier. It could be used for frying. It could be used in baking. Was it healthy? Nobody knew. Since this new-fangled semi-solid fat resembled food, and the decision was made to market this as food. They called this revolutionary new product Crisco, which stood for crystallized cottonseed oil.

Crisco was skillfully marketed as a cheaper alternative to lard. In 1911, Proctor & Gamble launched a brilliant campaign to put Crisco into every American household. They produced a recipe book, all of which use Crisco, of course, and gave it away for free. This was unheard of, at the time. Advertisements of that era also proclaimed that Crisco was easier to digest, cheaper and healthier due to its plant origins. That cottonseeds were essentially garbage was not mentioned. Over the next 3 decades, Crisco and other cottonseed oils dominated the kitchens of America, displacing lard.

By the 1950s, cottonseed oil itself was getting expensive and Crisco once again turned to a cheaper alternative, soybean oil. The soybean itself took an improbable route to the American kitchen. Originally from Asia, soybeans were introduced to North America in 1765, having been domesticated in China as far back as 7000 BC. Soybeans are approximately 18% oil and 38% protein, making it ideal as food for livestock or for industrial purposes (paint, engine lubricants).

Since Americans ate almost no tofu prior to World War II, little or no soybeans made it into the American diet. Things began to change during the Great Depression, when large areas of the United States were stricken by severe drought – the Dust Bowl. Soybeans could help regenerate the soil through their ability to fix nitrogen. It turns out that the great American Plains were ideal for growing soybeans, so they quickly became the second most lucrative crop, just behind corn.



Animal fat versus vegetable oil

Meanwhile, in 1924, the American Heart Association was formed. As Nina Teicholz reports in her book, The Big Fat Surprise, it was not the powerful behemoth it is today, but just a collection of heart specialists meeting occasionally to discuss professional matters. In 1948, this sleepy group of cardiologists were transformed by a $1.5 million donation from Proctor & Gamble, (maker of hydrogenated trans-fat laden Crisco). The war to replace animal fats with vegetable oils was on.

By the 1960s and 1970s, led by Ancel Keys, the new dietary villain was saturated fats, the type found more frequently in animal foods like meat and dairy. The American Heart Association (AHA) wrote the world’s first official recommendations in 1961 recommending that we “reduce intake of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Increase intake of polyunsaturated fat”. In other words, avoid animal fat and eat ‘heart-healthy’ vegetable oils, high in polyunsaturated fats, like Crisco. This advice carried forward to the influential 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Animal-fat-1The American Heart Association threw its now considerable market-moving influence into making sure that America ate less fat, and less saturated fat. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for example, declared the switch from beef tallow and other saturated fats to trans-fat laden partially hydrogenated oils as “a great boon to Americans’ arteries’. Don’t eat butter, they said. Instead, replace it with the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (read: trans-fats) known as margarine. That edible tub of plastic was much healthier than the butter that humans had been consuming for at least 3000 years, they said. Even as late as 1990 the CPSI refused to acknowledge the dangers of trans fats writing, famously their bottom line – “Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat” (Ref: Politically Incorrect Nutrition: Finding Reality in the Mire of Food. Michael Barbee.P27)

In 1994, the CSPI struck fear into movie-goers hearts with a brilliant scare campaign. Movie popcorn at that time popped in coconut oil, which was largely saturated fats. The CSPI declared that a medium sized bag of movie popcorn had more ‘artery clogging fat than a bacon-and eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” Movie popcorn sales plunged, and theatres raced to replace their coconut oil with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Yes, trans-fats. Before that, the war to rid the American public of beef tallow, the secret ingredient of McDonald’s French fries, resulted in the switch to, you guessed it, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The consequence of the vegetable oils

But the story was not yet done. By the 1990s, these trans fats that the AHA and the CSPI told us were supposed to be so healthy for us were implicated as major risk factors for heart disease. New studies now indicated that trans-fats just about doubled the risk of heart disease for every 2% increase in trans-fat calories (Ref: Hu, FB et al. Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 337(21):1491-1499). By some estimates, trans-fats were responsible for 100,000 deaths (Ref: Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease. Nutrition in Clinical Practice 2006:21(5);505-512. Zaloga GP et al). The very ‘heart-healthy’ foods the AHA recommended we eat could actually be increasing our risk for heart attacks. The irony. The irony. By November 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration removed partially hydrogenated oils from the list of human foods ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’. Yes, the AHA had been telling us to eat poison for decades.

PUFA-1Industrial seed oils, such as cottonseed are high in the omega-6 fat linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is called the parent omega-6 fat because other omega-6 fats, such as gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid are formed from it. During evolutionary times, the intake of linoleic acid would have only come from whole foods, such as eggs, nuts and seeds, whereas isolated omega-6 intake from industrial seed oils would have been zero. However, Crisco, introduced an isolated and adulterated type of linoleic acid into our diet. Thus, the intake of linoleic acid has dramatically increased and from a source that humans have never consumed before. These omega-6 seed oils can now be found in nearly all manufactured foods and are also found in grocery aisles in plastic bottles for cooking. Unfortunately, these oils are highly susceptible to heat, light, and air and are exposed to all three during their processing. Thus, while linoleic acid coming from whole foods such as nuts and seeds may actually be beneficial, the adulterated linoleic acid found in industrial seed oils may not be.

Let’s face the facts – we ate vegetable oils because they were CHEAP, not because they were healthy.


You can read more about vegetable oil and the war on saturated fat in Nina Teicholzs book: The Big Fat Surprise

Dr. Jason Fung

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  1. Kenrick
    Yes but let’s us not forget coconut oil is highly poisonous according to the Harvard Professor last week ( I am being sarcastic BTW )...I have never seen a seed natural shed oil ( and it should be called seed oil not vegetable oil ) naturally so it’s forced through the various industrial processes ...

    I guess one of the things ( of many ) that worries me the most is the use of Haxane in the refining process ...a chemical that if you were to sniff directly from the bottle would kill you instantly ...much like glysophate which carries warnings not to inhale directly and not to resuscitate directly somebody who has and is unconscious as a result of the glysophate inhalation ...

    Would you really want to have any of these foods or eat food products with either of these products used in their processing ? Not me ...


  2. Gerald Landry
    Kenrick, you beat me to it that a Neurotoxin, Hexane is used to extract cottonseed oil, soy bean oil and many others. I was injured by Toxic Fumes building an Air Emissions Project at a Pulp Mill. I later started having reactions to some processed phoods. One was oysters in cottonseed oil which led me to this knowledge.
    Cold pressed extraction is the best process for healthy seed oils. I would like to thank the author for the History of CRISCO! Alarming indeed how natural foods were demonized to advance Industrialy processed phoods.
    My pet peeve with Vegans re: Dairy products, simply a conversion of grass and water to foods consumed from the beginning of time by self propelled ruminants! All without refrigeration until the last century.
  3. Mauricio
    Excelente artículo Dr Fung... me pregunto si con toda la evidencia de los errores y contra recomendaciones la AHA ha realizado alguna declaración de arrepentimiento pública?... alguna reflexión pública y oficial sobre los errores que ha cometido ¿?.

    Muchas gracias por compartir este artículo.

    MSE @DeMetabolismo

  4. Triana
    I am so glad I rarely eat these foods but on occasion I do and I get sick over it. However, in my younger days, one cookie was never enough, I had to munch all night till the last one cookie in the bag was gone. We used to buy pies all the time, thinking they were healthier because they have no eggs and less sugar than a cake. We are vegetarians. So being a vegetarian doesn't mean we are eating healthy for our hearts. What about Tortilla chips? I don't buy potato chips anymore because of the cancer causing chemicals that get formed from high heat, but sometimes I buy tortilla chips instead. I think the fat in them is vegetable oil. Now will the company actually say it is hydrogenated or not? Will there be inspections on these companies? I wonder how much damage I already did to my heart from those days of eating foods with those bad oils.
    When you look at the grocery aisles, it seems so normal to have partially hydrogenated in all our processed foods, like crackers, pop tarts, frozen fries, frozen waffles and pancakes, ice-cream, soup mixes, even breads. Things that are supposed to make our lives easier. Yet it is deadly and makes our lives shorter. This is scary. Who makes the food laws???!! We are at the mercy of these food traders!

    I stopped buying flavored yoghourts and never eat sugar. I buy natural yoghurt and stock up on a variety of honey and add it to yoghurt.

    Did Americans have heart disease before Crisco invention?

  5. Amy Daane
    Sometimes I wonder if the mental anxiety surrounding all of these food choices and information can be more damaging than eating everything in moderation? When my husband and I had our daughters (now 17 & 15), we read how awful and cancer causing sugar can be. We became the "sugar shamers" (appropriately given to us by our oldest one) and the stress from Halloween, birthday parties and every soccer game and school parties was overwhelming. Now my 17 year old meets with a food coach and nutritionist to battle disordered eating while my youngest daughter loves to binge sugar and then feels bad about it, but still binges. Hmmmmm.....when I was growing up I didn't think about food and I enjoyed being active, for being active's sake. My Romanian grandmother used to tell us, everything in moderation, and can't that be enough?

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