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In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, a certain American plantation crop dominated the country’s agriculture. Farming this particular plant created an incredible amount of seed waste with no viable use. It would be 1829 before a commercially available product went to market. Furthermore, the seed oil would be used as lamp fuel and machine grease, not to ingest.

Cotton seeds were often discarded on American plantation farms “to rot in gin houses” or be “illegally dumped into rivers.” By the 1830s, a Virginia-based inventor had patented and built the country’s first cottonseed oil mill. Plantation owners were giddy over the crop waste’s revenue potential. The oil was marketed as a replacement for whale grease as lamp fuel. It was also used as an equipment lubricant. After the Civil War, the product was used in fertilizer cakes.

As It turns out, people have been both secretly and boastfully blending in cottonseed oil for human consumption for hundreds of years. Back in the 1760s, Dr. William Otto was administering unrefined cottonseed oil to colicky babies. He was really proud of what he thought was a new use for the seed waste and eagerly contacted the American Philosophical Society. Tragically, he didn’t know that the unrefined concoction contained gossypol, a toxic substance.

Shelves of bottled oils at a grocery store
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Early commercial cottonseed oil use was mostly done “under wraps”

Interestingly, in the late 1800s, Italy placed tariffs and eventually discontinued importing the oil due to the lowbrow practice of secretly diluting Italian olive oil with cheap, mild-tasting cottonseed oil.

Furthermore, stateside circa 1880s, lard became super expensive. One slaughterhouse and meatpacking company realized that the amount of lard they received was far more than could be produced by the existing pig population. A Congressional investigation confirmed the practice of blending in cottonseed oil, but they didn’t stop it. The authority simply mandated the term “lard compound.”

These days, refined cottonseed oil is used in many packaged foods. It’s generally known as a snack industry product. Crisco is a familiar product to many Americans. The cooking staple is widely known for its birthname, which Procter & Gamble created as shorthand for “crystallized cottonseed oil.” As such, it’s commonly used for frying. 

I won’t go too far down the “fake American food” soapbox, but it would benefit us to walk away from so many manufactured “food-like products.” “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And by plants, I’m sure Michael Pollen didn’t mean highly refined pesticide-laden seed waste.

Source: Barb Jennings for Penn State University.