Right now, you have vastly more information at your fingertips than your forebears at any point in human history. But instant access to the oceanic stores of human knowledge isn’t the same thing as access to pure truth. After all, facts and figures can be spun in any number of ways, and otherwise well-meaning people are always looking to tout their own self-interest. Sometimes, spinning and self-interest can lead to the creation of myths that fail to capture the real story. These five cottonseed oil myths are a great example.
1. Cottonseed Oil Has an Unhealthy Mix of Fats
This is a common complaint about edible oils, and it’s certainly not limited to cottonseed oil. Still, the benefits of cottonseed oil’s unique mix of fats — especially in comparison to other types of oil — rarely get the press they deserve. For instance, cottonseed oil is about 75 percent unsaturated fat, a more favorable mix than competitors like canola and coconut oil. It also boasts a favorable blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, both of which offer benefits for the musculoskeletal, neurological and cardiovascular systems. And cottonseed oil has fewer inflammation-causing lipids (fat molecules) than many other oils.
2. Cottonseed Oil Doesn’t Have Many Nutrients
No one’s saying cottonseed oil is a miracle health food, but the topic of cottonseed oil nutrition has long failed to get the press it deserves. In particular, the oil is compared unfavorably to peanut oil, olive oil and other vegetable oils with high densities of specific nutrients. That’s unwarranted: Studies show that cottonseed oil has a high concentration of vitamin E — nearly as high as peanut oil, which is often cited as the gold standard for vitamin E content.
3. Cottonseed Oil Isn’t Suitable for Use Outside the Fryer
Cottonseed oil has long been pigeonholed as a “frying oil,” and it’s true that it’s very useful in commercial cooking applications. But it’s also a great substitute for other vegetable oils in baking recipes, potato dishes and even salads. In fact, taste tests that compare CSO and olive oil produce similar outcomes in salad dressings.
4. Cottonseed Oil Has an Unpleasant Taste
More on the taste point: Cottonseed oil was once decried as an “industrial” oil whose bitter taste made it unsuitable for use in high-quality culinary applications. That’s no longer true, if it ever was. Modern refining techniques impart a crisp, neutral flavor to bottled cottonseed oil, dramatically increasing its versatility and ensuring that it doesn’t overwhelm other ingredients.
5. Cottonseed Oil Is Bad for the Environment
Cotton farming has gotten significantly more sustainable since the late 20th century, putting the old argument that cotton (and other crops) are bad for the environment when grown en masse. In particular, cotton farming uses fewer pesticides and less water, and depletes soil nutrients at a slower pace, than at any time in history.
Public opinion might not change overnight, but at least it can change. The next time you hear something that doesn’t quite sound right, whether about cottonseed oil or anything else, don’t be afraid to call it out. Your voice might be louder than you realize.
For those who don’t live in rural areas or have some personal or familial connection to farming, agriculture can seem like a distant concept. Many still adhere to romantic notions of farming and foodways — small, family-owned farms where the work is done by hand and the fruits of the harvest are sold at market in the nearest town.
While the organic and local food movements are building momentum for a return to a modern version of this idyll, there’s another trend in 21st-century farming that deserves attention: accelerating technological advancements that boost sustainability and improve output. Here’s how sustainable cotton farming is changing what we eat, what we wear and how we interact with the planet.
Less Water, More Cotton
Agriculture isn’t possible with a steady supply of water. Although some crops, such as wheat, can get by with relatively little water and others, like rice, literally need to be standing in it, nothing that grows can go completely without it.
And that makes farming a challenge in drought-prone areas. Farmers in California and the American Southwest always have to worry about where their water’s coming from. Recent droughts have underscored the need for better conservation practices.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that cotton itself is a water conservation strategy. Much of the country’s cotton acreage is “dryland,” meaning it doesn’t rely on regular irrigation (which can drain aquifers in arid areas). In places that do require irrigation, new technologies deliver water directly to each plant’s roots, reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation on hot days.
Better Cotton Without the Pesticides
Pesticide use was once another “given” in modern agriculture. There are simply too many insects and microbes that want to harm commercial crops, the thinking went — they can’t possibly fight them all with their natural defenses, no matter how hard they try.
Well, modern science has an answer: selective breeding and gene modification. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s very real. In fact, cotton was one of the first crops to be successfully modified to produce a natural pesticide against a common (and devastating) pest, the tobacco budworm. Known as Bt cotton, the resultant strain is now widely used in the developing world, where the pest was particularly problematic.
In the United States, it was the boll weevil that devastated cotton populations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s no strain of cotton that naturally defends against the weevil, but a fierce eradication program has eliminated the bug in all but a handful of southern counties. With fewer weevils to eat their cotton crops, farmers across the southern United States have far less use for pesticides than they once did. That’s great news for our lakes, rivers and oceans, which are all negatively impacted by pesticide runoff.
Sustainable Cotton Farming for the Win
Cottonseed oil manufacturing shouldn’t be a black box. Neither should sustainable cotton farming. It’s important that this story get told — mostly because it’s so optimistic. After all, if you think about how far we’ve come in the past half-century, can you imagine what we’ll accomplish in the next?
For commercial kitchens (and high-volume household kitchens, too), frying presents significant logistical challenges. Aside from the safety issues surrounding the use of open vats of hot oil, durability and flavor consistency rank high on the list of concerns. Different oils rise to these twin challenges with varying levels of success. Here’s why cottonseed oil is a cut above on both counts — and why growing numbers of chefs are trading out other cooking oils for cottonseed oil recipes.
Impressive Shelf Life
According to a landmark study that looked at the chemical properties and subjective attributes of cottonseed oil, including its palatability relative to other cottonseed oil flavors, cottonseed oil’s shelf life is longer than just about any other non-hydrogenated oil’s.
What does “shelf life” mean in this context? In short, the length of time that an oil container can sit at room temperature without compromising the subjective quality or physical integrity of the oil. While there are a range of factors that affect a particular batch’s shelf life, including unique attributes of the surrounding environment, cottonseed oil outperforms other oils on a consistent basis. That means less wasted oil for infrequent cooks.
Stability in the Fryer
Perhaps even more importantly, cottonseed oil appears to be more stable than other oils in repetitive frying operations. The chemical reasons for this are fairly technical, but the takeaway is that cottonseed oil lasts about half again as long in the fryer as other popular frying oils. That’s important for several reasons:
- It allows restaurants to keep food costs under control, buying less oil to produce the same amount of food
- It keeps diners happy by reducing the rate at which the flavor of cooked food seeps into the oil and compromises its taste
- It keeps kitchens running smoothly, reducing the frequency of oil changeovers that can interrupt operations during busy periods
- It improves worker safety, limiting contact with open vats of hot oil during changeovers
- It’s great news for home cooks who want to produce restaurant-quality meals in their personal kitchens
Durable oil has another benefit: consistency. This is one of the biggest “wins” for cottonseed oil fans: The oil’s impressive durability ensures that successive food batches cooked in the same oil taste roughly similar to one another. If you’re frying up potato chips in a factory, you want an oil that keeps the chips produced for Peoria on par with the chips destined for Denver. Ditto if you’re presiding over a Friday night fish fry that’s churning out pound after pound of cod or whitefish.
Cook to Your Heart’s Content
Some kitchen-dwellers and diners love cooking science. Others prefer to, well, cook and eat. But whichever side you come down on, it’s hard to ignore evidence right in front of your eyes. Cottonseed oil recipes achieve impressive consistency of flavor thanks to the oil’s above-average durability. If you’re looking to control your frying oil flavors, you may have your answer.