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Cottonseed oil has long gotten a bad rap. Back in the day, imperfect nutritional analyses and scientific misunderstandings pegged cottonseed oil as an actively unhealthy food additive that shouldn’t come anywhere near our food.
We won’t go into all the reasons this now-discredited approach to cottonseed oil was (and remains) wrong. Instead, we’ll let the myriad benefits of cottonseed oil speak for themselves. It’s been well documented that cottonseed oil is a useful component of everything from cosmetics to adhesives to aquaponic feed. And it’s increasingly viewed as a superior alternative to the world’s most popular vegetable oils, such as canola and peanut oil. Cottonseed oil owns its newfound popularity to these five healthful nutrients, among others:
Linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat, is one of the most common fats in the human diet. Its many benefits include reducing the concentration of harmful saturated fats (and LDL cholesterols) in the human bloodstream and keeping the skin from absorbing excess water. Linoleic acid is also implicated in a host of important internal processes, such as smooth muscle function and blood clotting.
Palmitic acid is a healthy fat that’s noted for its crisp, clean taste and the subtle yet unmistakable texture that it imparts in a variety of foods — including those prepared with cottonseed oil. Palmitic acid is also a popular emulsifying ingredient in cosmetic products, such as soaps and cleansers.
Oleic acid is an extremely nutritious fatty acid that’s found in large quantities in olive oil and cottonseed oil. It’s implicated in the promotion of healthy cholesterol (HDL) and suppression of unhealthy cholesterol (LDL). If you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health, a diet rich in oleic acid — one that includes cottonseed oil — is a great pace to start.
According to Skinfopedia, behenic acid is one of the most popular organic ingredients in common cosmetic products. Also known as docosanoic acid, behenic acid is a bit different from the other three fats on this list. That’s because it’s not particularly well-absorbed by the human body, and thus doesn’t have a huge impact on the health of those who consume it. (Some studies indicate that behenic acid marginally increases cholesterol levels, but further study is needed to determine the extent to which this is the case.)
That said, behenic acid is a great surfactant — a substance that suspends oils in water. As such, it’s a critical component of oil-absorbing soaps and lotions designed to clean skin without drying or irritation. Next time you use a cottonseed oil-based cosmetic product, thank its behenic acid content for the soft, clean glow it leaves behind.
Tocopherols (Vitamin E)
Vitamin E is one of the most powerful antioxidants — substances that fight harmful molecules known as free radicals — out there. Its benefits are legendary.
According to WebMD, “Some people use vitamin E for diseases of the brain and nervous system including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease, night cramps, restless leg syndrome, and for epilepsy, along with other medications. Vitamin E is also used for Huntington’s chorea, and other disorders involving nerves and muscles.”
Further, says WebMD, “Vitamin E is also used for cataracts, asthma, respiratory infections, skin disorders, aging skin, sunburns, cystic fibrosis, infertility, impotence, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), peptic ulcers, for certain inherited diseases and to prevent allergies.”
Among fellow vegetable oils, cottonseed oil has an unusually high concentration of Vitamin E. It’s no wonder doctors recommend regular consumption of Vitamin E-rich oils like cottonseed oil for better health!
Just the Tip of the Nutrient Iceberg
These five nutrients aren’t the only beneficial substances in cottonseed oil. In fact, cottonseed oil is jam-packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that set cottonseed oil head and shoulders above its fellow vegetable oils — including better-known alternatives like canola and olive oil. Whether you’re using cottonseed oil as a light, rich flavor aid for your fresh greens salad or a heart-healthy frying medium for your latest batch of chicken or fish, you’re sure to taste — and feel — the difference. And if you’re using cottonseed oil-based cosmetics, your skin’s healthy glow might just show the difference.
When you think about cotton, you probably picture white tees and jeans, or maybe a generic puffball swaying in the wind at the top of a shrubby plant. That’s fine: Cotton fibers have long lounged in the sun of public perception while the cotton plant’s other value-added products — humble cottonseeds — have toiled alone in the shade.
Now that word is out about cottonseed oil’s tremendous health benefits, Americans are beginning to ask what else the cottonseed and its oil are good for. Here’s a look at five things you probably didn’t know cottonseed and cottonseed oil could do.
1. Dairy Feed
Next time you bite into a juicy steak or enjoy a shot of rich cream in your coffee, thank a dairy farmer — and a cotton farmer. With more than 2 million tons of the stuff set aside for livestock use every year, cottonseed is a popular component of nutrient-dense dairy feeds. Cottonseed is particularly useful for supplementing hay or grain-feed diets during the winter, when livestock don’t have access to natural grass in many parts of the world.
Although the dairy market competes with plenty of other sectors of the economy, livestock farmers and cotton producers partner closely to ensure that supplies remain adequate and affordable even when harvests are interrupted by bad weather or yields fall due to drought.
Cottonseed oil’s nutrient-rich fats make the substance a natural base for a variety of skin care and cosmetic products, including makeup, anti-aging cream and moisturizing lotion. In fact, cottonseed oil has supplanted coconut oil and palm oil, both of which have less favorable fat profiles, as the go-to oil for style-conscious celebrities and socialites who want to look and feel young without paying the price down the road. Cottonseed oil-based cosmetic products impart youthful shine and vigor, not oily sheens and acne outbreaks.
3. Fish Food
Researchers at New Mexico State University recently announced that they’d developed a closed-loop aquaculture system using cottonseed oil — some of which is derived from cotton grown within an hour’s drive of the university — as a primary nutrient. The goal: to create a viable demonstration of an indoor shrimp farm using water plants and other natural cleaning agents to absorb waste and eliminate the need for carbon-intense inputs.
Although it’s still early going, the project appears to be working exactly as planned, and looks relatively easy to scale. That could have huge impacts for the future of the world’s fisheries, which are under increasing stress as standards of living increase and newly flush consumers seek out exotic delicacies. In the not-too-distant future, a fruitful alliance between inland fish farmers and cotton growers could help supply a non-negligible share of the world’s fish protein.
Cottonseed has lately shown promise as an eco-friendly adhesive. The world’s default adhesives are petroleum-based, meaning they rely on a finite resource that takes a lot of energy (and carbon) to produce and refine. That’s not sustainable. By contrast, cotton is completely renewable — and, though its supply chain isn’t carbon-neutral at the moment, it’s likely to become far more eco-friendly than it already is in the years to come. Soon enough, the wood glue your kid uses to build that model airplane or car could have a lot in common with the T-shirt on her back!
5. Spread Replacements
Cottonseed oil has long been a popular cooking oil, but another potential food use is showing promise as well. Food scientists are close to unraveling the mystery of cottonseed processing, and may soon unlock a potentially game-changing capability: commercializing a cottonseed-based spread that’s similar in consistency, taste and versatility to peanut butter. Since cottonseed has a favorable mix of healthy fats and vitamins, this product would likely supplant — or at least give a run for the money — peanut butter as Americans’ go-to bread spread. Who said cottonseed oil was just for deep frying?
These are just a few of the many uses of cottonseed oil. There are plenty of others, and more are being developed (cottonseed oil spread, anyone?) all the time. It’s a great time to be in the cotton business — or simply to be a fan of the cotton plant’s oily, versatile byproduct.
When you tear into a bag of your favorite snack, chances are good that you’re enjoying a product made at least partially from corn or soybeans. These two crops account for a staggering share of the United States’ (and developed world’s) grain consumption, with mixed results for humanity’s collective health.
Meet the Reigning Grains
For years, food scientists and economists have tried in vain to identify a promising challenge to the corn-soybean duopoly. For various reasons, this has proven difficult. Under normal circumstances, corn and soybeans are incredibly profitable for American farmers to grow, thanks to impeccable breeding practices that have produced drought- and cold-resistant strains as well as thorough crop insurance programs that aren’t available to farmers who grow certain other types of grains.
Unfortunately, farmers who exclusively or principally focus on corn and soybeans can do their fields — and the environment — a disservice if they’re not careful. Fields devoted to only one type of crop, regardless of its pedigree, create what’s known as a monoculture. Since the same genetic material grows out of and decomposes into them year after year, monoculture soils lose their nutrient diversity over time. That forces farmers to use more chemical fertilizers, which damage adjacent waterways. By contrast, fields that host different crops in successive growing seasons — a practice known as crop rotation — tend to be healthier and require less fertilizer.
Cotton and Cottonseed: The Next Big Thing in Food?
Cotton is pest- and drought-resistant, making it an ideal food crop. But its seeds, which contain the bulk of the plant’s protein and energy, also harbor a human-toxic natural pesticide called gossypol. Though ruminant livestock are able to tolerate gossypol, humans can’t eat raw or cooked cottonseeds without suffering adverse effects. Only cottonseed oil, which is processed to remove all traces of gossypol, is suitable for human consumption.
That’s about to change. Researchers recently announced a breakthrough in cottonseed modification. Basically, they’ve figured out how to silence the gene that produces gossypol in cottonseeds without impeding the gene’s ability to produce gossypol in other parts of the plant. The result: Cottonseeds that are totally safe to eat, and cotton plants that fight pests just as well as their “normal” brethren.
The cottonseed has other benefits as a food item, too. Pound for pound, it’s actually cheaper to produce than other common types of food, and its drought- and pest-resistance make it perfect for cultivation on marginal lands and in semi-arid areas that can’t support corn and soybean production without irrigation, such as western India, the High Plains of the United States and Central Asia.
Growing Food for the Next Generation
Cottonseed production won’t rival corn and soybean production overnight. Anyway, it’s not helpful to think of cotton as a direct competitor to established food crops. Rather, it’s an alternative that enhances overall food security by offering a legitimate alternative to the current “reigning grains.”
But cotton’s time in the culinary spotlight is fast approaching, and the world looks to be better off for it. Eaters everywhere should rejoice.
Are you continually mortified by a parent who simply won’t stop telling your birth story around your friends and significant others? At dinner parties, family gatherings and random public encounters, they regale all who will listen about the time they raced to the hospital in a panic or stayed up for two days straight to produce the most perfect newborn the world has ever seen.
Non-humans have birth stories, too. Species’ birth stories are particularly compelling, particularly when they describe how useful crops began working their ways into our everyday lives.
Cotton’s Birth Story
Cotton’s birth story is truly fascinating. According to geneticists at Iowa State University, the modern cotton plant arose between one and 2 million years ago. Back then, favorable conditions allowed for natural cross breeding between two similar shrubs — one with an American pedigree, another with a Eurasian or African pedigree.
The result was a hybrid species that exhibited the best traits of both. Like other domesticated crops’ predecessors, the newly “birthed” cotton plant was very different from modern cultivars. It was woodier and had shorter, coarser fibers, a far cry from the fluffy white bolls that spring forth from cultivated cotton today. Although it may have been used by prehistoric peoples for weaving, pre-domesticated cotton simply wasn’t suitable for large-scale clothing production or other modern uses that require clean, fine fibers.
A Malleable Genome
While it didn’t directly benefit cotton’s first users, the natural intermixing of those two ancient plants did have a very fortuitous result. It created an unusually malleable cotton genome that responds well to crossbreeding for beneficial traits. Over time, early horticulturalists selectively bred cotton for characteristics that add to its value as a crop, including boll size, fiber softness and ability to grow in marginal soils.
This work has produced a sort of “super cotton” varietal that provides about 90% of the world’s commercially used cotton. But it continues today — and is actually accelerating, thanks to cutting-edge technologies and new breeding techniques.
University-based geneticists and botanists are pursuing several parallel lines of cotton-related work. The most exciting include:
- Drought resistance. Cotton is already a drought-resistant crop, and new work is being done to boost its water-sipping properties still further. The goal: Cotton that can grow in the world’s most arid agricultural regions, places where corn and wheat can’t survive.
- Pest resistance. Thanks to selective breeding, cotton farmers already use about 50% less pesticide by volume than their counterparts in the mid-20th century. Further advances could reduce pesticide use even more.
- Edibility. Cotton isn’t a traditional food crop, though its seeds have been used to make oil for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, cotton meal isn’t ideal for human consumption at the moment. But scientists are increasingly confident that cotton plants capable of producing food-quality meal can be bred, perhaps within the next five years.
Cotton Has a Bright Future
Cotton has a great original birth story. Depending on how you look at it, it might be in the midst of a second birth story today. With exciting new developments on the horizon, it’s possible that the cotton plant of the 22nd century will look so different from the cotton plant of today as to appear a totally different species. That’s an exciting prospect in a world that could benefit from more drought-resistant, nutrient-rich crops.
How does your birth story stack up to cotton’s?
According to new reports out of the ARS Southern Regional Research Center, scientists may be on the cusp of a breakthrough that could position cottonseed meal as a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based wood adhesives. The adhesive would be used in a wide range of interior applications, such as furniture production, paneling and flooring.
The market for “bio-based,” environmentally friendly wood adhesives remains small. Most non-petroleum adhesives are derived from soy protein, which binds well at high temperatures. However, soy is one of the developed world’s most important food sources, and experts worry that dramatically ramping up production of soy-based adhesives could push up soy prices and render some common foodstuffs unaffordable for middle- and lower-class consumers.
An Adhesive Innovation
Until now, the search for an alternative to soy-based adhesives has come up empty. But an ARS team led by Zhongqi He may have solved the principal problem preventing cottonseed-derived adhesive from giving soy a run for its money.
Their innovation: a gentle, environmentally-friendly washing process that removes water-soluble parts of the meal without affecting the water-resistant, super-sticky protein compounds that form the basis of the meal-based adhesive. Previously, producing adhesive from the protein portion of cottonseed meal required a harsh, costly separation process that’s hard to scale.
In tests with maple and poplar, meal-based adhesive performed at par with or even better than protein-only adhesive produced using the harsher process. The difference was particularly noticeable when the adhesive was applied and set at high temperatures (230 degrees Fahrenheit, versus 176 degrees). He theorizes that higher temperatures encourage tighter binding between carbohydrate molecules within the meal.
Expanding Markets for Cottonseed Meal
Currently, cottonseed meal is a cheap agricultural byproduct — little more than an afterthought, really — whose primary uses include protein-rich feed for ruminant livestock. Tapping cottonseed meal’s adhesive potential would be a boon for the thousands of farmers and workers who earn their livings in part or in whole from America’s original cash crop, as well as for countless others who contribute value at various points in the adhesive and interior design supply chains. Farmers produce more than 1.3 million tons of cottonseed byproducts every year, a stunning quantity of biomass that could readily be put to good use.
It’s also worth noting that cottonseed meal’s eco-friendly potential doesn’t stop with wood adhesives. Scientists are also exploring ways to make meal and other cottonseed byproducts healthy and palatable for human consumption. Although this work is ongoing and hasn’t yet resulted in a wide range of marketable food products, the next five years look very bright indeed. And it’s important to remember that given huge annual volumes of cottonseed production and substantially more production slack than the soybean market, it will be many years — if ever — before production of meal-based adhesives comes into conflict with food production.
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