When Was the Last Time You Ate a Shirt?

I want you to find the nearest bag of potato chips. Hint – if you can reach it without leaving your computer chair, that’s a bad thing. Now, read the ingredients list. Unless your potato chips are the super-swank high-end organic kind, I’d bet dollars to donuts that somewhere in that list is either vegetable oil or cottonseed oil. Hint #2 – if it says “vegetable oil”, then quite likely it’s cottonseed oil, at least in part.

Next step, think about this, and it’s not a trick question – when was the last time you ate a shirt?

You’ve probably eaten cottonseed oil a great deal, though, without even realizing it. It’s now one of the standards for frying potato chips because of its high smoke point, mild flavour, long shelf life and low price. If you’ve eaten pastry made with Crisco shortening, you’ve eaten cottonseed oil, although the packaging only lists vegetable oil, and you have to dig hard and deep on the Crisco website to find an ingredients list.

Wikipedia offers the following description of cottonseed oil…

Cottonseed oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the seeds of the cotton plant after the cotton lint has been removed. It must be refined to remove gossypol, a naturally occurring toxin that protects the cotton plant from insect damage. Therefore, unrefined cottonseed oil is sometimes used as a pesticide. Cottonseed oil in its natural unhydrogenated state has no cholesterol and does not contain trans fatty acids. However, it does contain over 50% Omega-6 fatty acids and only trace amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, and the imbalance is considered unhealthy if not used in moderation or balanced elsewhere in the diet. Further, these polyunsaturated fats can potentially go rancid during the extraction process.
Cottonseed oil is commonly used in manufacturing potato chips and other snack foods. Along with soybean oil, it is very often partially or fully hydrogenated. The growing consensus is that in hydrogenated (trans fat) from these oils are very unhealthy. Cottonseed oil was the first oil to be hydrogenated in mass production, originally intended for candle production, and soon also as a food (as Crisco). In part because regulations apply differently to non-food crops, it has also been suggested that cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues, but insufficient testing has been done [1]. Cotton (oil) is also one of the big four (soy, corn, rapeseed/Canola, and cotton) genetically modified crops grown around the world.

The National Cottonseed Products Association provides a list of 20 facts about cottonseed oil, although some of these facts are simply reworded versions of earlier facts in the list, but which are meant to show the consumer just how wonderful a product the stuff is. In fact, if you Google “cottonseed oil”, almost all the entries that appear are positive ones, created by groups like the NCPA to promote the sale and use of their product.

Do a Google search for “cottonseed oil pesticide”, though, and you get a very different view of what cottonseed oil is all about.

Because you don’t eat your shirts, cotton is still not considered a food crop. That cottonseed oil used on your potato chips is considered a waste product from the primary use of cotton, which is to make fabric. What this means is that cotton can be sprayed with a variety of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are illegal to spray on traditional food crops. The cottonseed industry claims that the pesticide residue is removed during the processing and cleaning, but pesticide residue has been found in cottonseed and cotton by-products. If you eat meat, you’re getting extra pesticide residue from cotton, as by-products including seeds and hulls (also known as “gin trash”) are often fed to livestock.

So let’s look at cottonseed oil again:

– low in saturated fat
– flavour stability
– high smoke point
– cheap to manufacturers

– almost exclusively genetically-modified
– sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides not permitted on food crops
– low in Omega3, therefore does not compare favourably to other oils
– fully or partially hydrogenated to preserve shelf life, which creates trans-fats

Compared to other oils out there, the pros of cottonseed oil are far outweighed by the cons. Other than via shortening products such as Crisco and some margarines, cottonseed oil is generally not available to the home cook, but is sold to manufacturers of snack foods because of its long shelf life, versatility and low price.

Consumers intent on avoiding GMOs and pesticides should make an extra effort to read and understand nutritional labels on packaged foods. If the ingredients include cottonseed oil or the generic “vegetable oil” (which translates to either a combination of oils that usually include cottonseed oil, or “whatever was cheapest”), put that package back on the shelf and find something else. Maybe even try making your own healthy versions of the snack foods you love so you can control both the quantity and quality of the fats that are included.