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The Myth That Almost Took Down The Cotton Industry

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History is littered with examples of fashion trends that came back after near-death experiences—often more than once. (Big hair, anyone?) Surprisingly, the story of some food products is similar: an initial period of fascination, followed by a lengthy layoff as people move onto the next craze, followed by a resurgence based on the “rediscovery” of some benefit or value.

Among the many edible examples, cottonseed oil stands out due to its centuries-long history of use and the wild swings in the public’s perceptions about it. Let’s take a little walk down memory lane and learn why it pays to dispel some myths once and for all.

Cottonseed Oil History: The Early Days

In the before times—the mid-19th century—cottonseed oil was used, mostly due to its sheer abundance and a lack of affordable alternatives, for many things: heating, light, lubrication and more. By the turn of the 20th century, Crisco, Wesson and a handful of forgotten competitors figured out how to refine it into a palatable food product. Pretty soon, home cooks across America were using it to flavor just about everything. But the good times weren’t meant to last.

The Myth That Almost Took Down The Cotton Industry

Falling Out of Favor

Part of the reason cottonseed oil consumption fell during the mid to late 20th century nothing to do with health concerns. Soybeans, rapeseed and other alternatives were simply cheaper. But for whatever reason, this period also saw the rise of a potent myth about cottonseed oil’s fat profile. Specifically, nutritionists alleged that the oil had a higher proportion of saturated fats and “bad” cholesterol, key culprits in cardiovascular disease.

The problem, at least for those who made a living selling cottonseed oil, was that this theory wasn’t built on sound science. Pure cottonseed oil’s fat profile was (and still is) far healthier than those of its hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil replacements, the drawbacks of which nutritionists consistently underestimated for years.

The Trans Fat Controversy

To evade the supposed evils of cottonseed oil, producers turned to cheaper, more heavily processed oils. The hydrogenation process imparted a flavor that mimicked the crispness of cottonseed oil without the supposed health issues. And hydrogenated oil sure was tasty. But over the years, the link between heart disease and hydrogenation, which produced harmful compounds called trans fats, became clearer. Eventually, it became impossible for fair-minded scientists to ignore the evidence that hydrogenation and trans fats had significant, negative health ramifications.

What’s Old Is New Again

So the culinary world found itself right back where it started. The FDA mandated labeling of trans fats in 2006, effectively ending their widespread use. And pure cottonseed oil, long derided for its unhealthiness, gained favor as a healthy alternative to more heavily processed oils.

The rise and fall of cottonseed oil’s reputation is a cautionary tale for myth peddlers, sure, but it should also give pause to folks in search of the latest health fad. When it comes to determining what’s safe to put in our bodies and what should probably stay in the ground, facts and experience win the day.