Looking back over the last 40 years, it’s hard to understand how we could have been so gullible. We believed that fat, and more specifically saturated fat (found primarily in animal foods), was thought to increase cholesterol and cause heart disease. Instead, we should switch to ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils, like cottonseed, corn, safflower and soy oils. But recent evidence suggests this was a Faustian bargain. The industrially processed seed oils were much, much worse. It was all a terrible mistake that began with Crisco.
Cotton plantations for fabric were cultivated in the United States as early as 1736. Prior to this, it was largely an ornamental plant. At first, most cotton was home-spun into garments, but the success of the crop meant that some could be exported to England. From a modest 600 pounds of cotton in 1784, it grew to over 200,000 by 1790. The invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 led to a staggering 40,000,000 pounds of cotton production.
But cotton is actually two crops — the fiber and the seed. For every 100 pounds of fiber, there was 162 pounds of cotton seeds which were largely useless. Only 5% of this seed was required for planting. Some could be used for livestock feed but there was still a mountain of garbage. What could be done with this garbage? Mostly it was left to rot or simply dumped illegally into rivers. It was toxic waste.
Meanwhile, in the 1820’s and 1830’s increased demand for oil used in cooking and lighting from a rising population and decreased supply of whale oil meant that prices rose steeply. Enterprising entrepreneurs tried to crush the worthless cotton seeds to extract the oil, but it was not until the 1850s that the technology matured to the point that commercial production could commence. But in 1859, something happened that would transform the modern world. Colonel Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 introducing a massive supply of fossil fuels to the modern world. Before long, the demand for cottonseed oil for lighting had completely evaporated and cottonseeds went back to being classified as toxic waste.