Many people are aware that highly processed and refined vegetable oils like canola and corn oil aren’t as healthy as naturally cold-pressed oils like olive or avocado oil. But where does that leave cottonseed oil? It’s neither a vegetable nor a fruit, so where does this oil come from, and how exactly is it produced? Are there health benefits to cottonseed oil, or should it be treated like sesame oil: fine in recipes for specific taste requirements, but otherwise better to use sparingly? We have the answers to your cottonseed oil questions here, including how it relates to the keto diet.
Though cotton to most of us isn’t a vegetable (it’s the fiber making up our clothes and bed linens), cottonseed oil is considered a vegetable oil. Derived from the seeds of cotton plants, cottonseed oil is far lower in saturated fat than polyunsaturated fat by at least half, a combination that the American Heart Association deems heart healthy. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the same issues as other vegetable and seed oils like safflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Cotton fiber came into wide demand in the late 1800s, but the seeds of the cotton plant were being largely discarded until Proctor and Gamble started including cottonseed oil in various products, the most notable of which was Crisco (an acronym for crystallized cottonseed oil), a vegetable oil shortening now well-known for being full of problematic trans fats that contribute to cardiovascular diseases.
However, for several decades, cottonseed oil was used as a lard (pig fat) replacement, right up until about World War II when more cotton was needed for the war effort. That brought about the introduction of the far-cheaper soybean oil, which then shared the marketplace with cottonseed oil during peace time.
By the 1950s, saturated fat had become linked with risk factors for heart disease, and so medical professionals began recommending that consumers replace saturated fat oils with those containing polyunsaturated fats: that meant vegetable oils were in, and products like coconut oil were out.
Though that recommendation still exists in some official circles, a popular understanding of the refining process that goes into making these so-called healthy vegetable oils has people judging them not by fat content alone, but by proven health impact. For people on high-fat diets like keto, becoming personally educated on how fat works in the body means questioning products like cottonseed oil, which is still often found in commercially sold potato chips.
Though weight-loss crazes can make it seem like fat is the enemy, there are good fats and bad fats. Saturated fatty acids are merely “saturated” with hydrogen bonds at the molecular level, and there is actually no direct causation between saturated fat consumption and increased rates of heart disease—the original data suggesting this noticed a correlation between diets rich in saturated fats and instances of heart disease, but it didn’t take into account other potential factors. Correlation is not causation.
In an attempt to slash saturated fat from their diets, people often avoid natural, unrefined, and healthy oils for cooking, as well as foods like eggs (a great source of choline), animal meat (full of zinc and iron), and red palm oil (a provider of vitamin A for eye health). Other healthy fats include monounsaturated fatty acids, which have just one open hydrogen bond on the molecular level and are found in avocados, olives, olive oil, palm oil, etc. These foods are known to be associated with improved blood pressure and blood glucose (sugar) levels, as well as better cardiovascular health.
Cottonseed oil contains both saturated and monounsaturated fats to some extent, but is predominantly made up of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Where does that leave it in regards to your health?
You may never have bought cottonseed oil, but you’ve almost surely eaten it. Cottonseed oil does find its way into food products like salad dressing, shortenings, fried foods like potato chips, and more without consumers being the wiser.
Most cottonseed oil comes from India these days, were cotton crop products are a large export. The refining process involves pressing cotton seeds and removing toxic compounds like gossypol (which suppresses male potency in humans and animals). But it also removes positive components like vitamin E, which is an antioxidant useful for guarding against free radical damage. Though it has a largely neutral taste and a long shelf life, you may not want some of the following aspects and side effects of cottonseed oil.
Cottonseed oil is about 42% to 52% linoleic acid, which is a polyunsaturated fat. The rest is divided between roughly 26% to 35% palmitic acid (a saturated fat), and 18% to 24% oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat). That means the ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fatty acids is about 2:1 (though it varies by brand—sometimes it’s 4:1 as with Nut-Ola Cottonseed Oil).
Oils high in polyunsaturated fats are more unstable and oxidize quickly when exposed to light or heat, which leads to higher levels of rancidity. At one time it also meant that cottonseed oil was partially hydrogenated (a chemical process that adds hydrogen to make the oil more solid at room temperature) to help stabilize it. Indeed, the oil was more stable after that, but there were also dangerous trans fatty acids added to the mix. Trans fats are associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, and they’re entirely unnatural: the other fatty acids can be found in nature, but trans fatty acids from hydrogenation are 100% artificial.
In more recent years the worldwide health community has encouraged governments to remove trans fats from food products they export. The United States only followed suit in 2015, when the FDA removed trans fats from the “generally recognized as safe” list. Just as with fatty acid recommendations regarding heart health, an overall consensus can be hard to achieve and slow to reverse when new information comes to light.
So: while most cottonseed oils now come non-hydrogenated, that means they are back to being more unstable in regards to temperature and oxidation.
Speaking of heart health, we have to address the myth of cottonseed oil as a “heart-healthy” cooking oil. Though health experts point out that it’s more stable than sunflower or soybean oils, it still contains easily oxidized linoleic acid, and oxidized oils have a detrimental impact on health, including the health of your heart.
Consuming oxidized fats (lipids) in the form of fried vegetable oil has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and accelerate the progression of atherosclerosis. Your risk gets higher the more you consume, which is why it’s so disheartening to see trusted health sources like the American Heart Association continue to be slow in updating their information.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids with beneficial uses in the body, but if you are consuming more omega-6s than omega-3s, you may have problems with inflammation. Oily fish, nuts, and seeds contain both omega-3 and omega-6, but the balance between the two tips in drastic favor of potentially pro-inflammatory omega-6 thanks to vegetable oils like cottonseed oil in so many of our food products.
To better balance your omega-6:omega-3 ratio, strive for at least twice the amount of omega-3 to reach a 2:1 ratio. Some anti-aging experts advocate a 1:1 ratio.
Keep in mind that in the United States that ratio can be skewed as dramatically as 20:1 with omega-6s in overabundance. This imbalance causes oxidative stress in the body and overtaxes our immune systems. The resultant inflammation can contribute to the development or exacerbation of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Omega-6 fatty acids when consumed to excess are also linked to higher rates of obesity if they outnumber omega-3s in your body. Mouse models have shown that obesity is the highlighted difference between a high-linoleic and low-linoleic diet, and remember that cottonseed oil is 42-52% linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is one of the major contributing factors to obesity in America and other Western English-speaking countries, which has led to increased amounts of heart disease and diabetes throughout those populations.
Fat is an essential part of any healthy diet, whether it comes from dairy products, eggs, fish, seeds, and yes, healthy oils. Cottonseed oil has a lot of red flags, not least of which is that it may come from GMO crops. You don’t necessarily have to go on a campaign against the misinformation claiming that it’s heart healthy, but you don’t have to bring it into your house either. Instead, fill your pantry with healthier oils like avocado, olive, or MCT oil (which is cold-pressed from coconuts).
Long story short on cottonseed oil: we give it a pass in favor of better options.