Welcome back to Family, Folk and History. Today, we are taking a look what the production of cottonseed oil in America during the 19th and 20th centuries reveals about the rise of industrial foods. The main source for this substack is the wonderful article “Eating Cotton: Cottonseed, Crisco, and Consumer Ignorance” by Helen Zoe Veit.
Cottonseed oil as a food during the 19th and 20th centuries reveals two crucial aspects concerning the rise of industrial food: manufacturers slandering an established product to raise the sales of their own products, and consumers placing their trust in a brand rather than the actual products’ ingredients through coercive marketing.
“Cotton had perhaps the strongest identity of any American commodity crop throughout the twentieth century”. (Veit 2019, pp.397-398).
Cottonseed oil was and is a by-product of the cotton industry. When cotton fibre was processed, mounds of the sticky seeds were left behind with no discernible use and could be toxic to non-ruminants. Cooking fats, known as ‘shortening’, were a staple ingredient in American cooking. They were made from any kind of fat available, predominantly animal fats like lard. But throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, animal fats were expensive due to the outlay of raising the animals.
Cottonseed oil was seen as a cheap answer to these problems, but the result was an oil that, while edible, was murky, foul-smelling, and unappealing. Despite this, products like ‘Cottolene’ came onto the market, compound fats that were a mixture of beef fat bulked out with small amounts of cottonseed oil that was heavily advertised as a cheaper replacement to lard. During the mid-1880s, chemist David Wesson discovered a way to lighten and deodorise cottonseed oil by forcing steam through it, which created a booming industry of hydrogenated cottonseed oil in both liquid and solid form. Cottonseed oil companies began vilifying lard in their marketing to make their products more popular, labelling lard’s taste as “obnoxious” (Veit 2019, p.401) despite the fact that it was a fundamental and accepted part of American baking. The popularity of cottonseed oil grew, revealing “food companies’ growing power to shape not only “the flavour of their products” but consumers’ “perceptions of taste” itself.” (Veit 2019, p.402).
This vilification of animal fats as opposed to the ‘pure’ and ‘neutral’ taste of cottonseed oil reveals a crucial aspect in the rise of industrial food – industrial companies vilifying a food made from unprocessed or untreated natural ingredients, often homemade or farm produced, as unhealthy or unclean in favour of a ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’ industrially manufactured and/or treated food product.
Cottonseed oil, was hailed and advertised as the epitome of ingenuity and innovation. However despite this hype, many Americans were still sceptical, particularly due to the fact that cottonseed oil was often used as an adulterant in olive oil, adulteration being ‘a major concern throughout this era’ (Veit 2019, p.408) that propelled the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
In 1911, the company Procter and Gamble launched their new product ‘Crisco’, the first solid fat made entirely from hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which meant “for the first time, cooks could substitute a cheap, shelf-stable vegetable shortening for butter or lard in virtually any recipe.” (Veit 2019, p.404). Rather than proudly showcasing its cottonseed oil content like other brands, Crisco was marketed as made of “vegetable oil” and carefully dodged queries about its real ingredients, insisting that it was “a purely vegetable product,” (Veit 2019, p.406) or “100% shortening.” (Veit 2019, p.406) and “Crisco is Crisco, and nothing else.” (Veit 2019, p.412), enabling Crisco to mitigate remaining consumer prejudices against cottonseed oil by toeing the blurry line between omission and food fraud. This reveals how the rise of industrial foods often relied upon what could be considered as being ‘honestly deceitful’. This still happens today: consumer aversion to palm oil, for example, is mitigated by companies advertising it as ‘vegetable oil’. The oil is technically made of a ‘vegetable’, but it is a lie by omission.
Crisco’s marketing strategy, more thorough than any other prior cottonseed oil brand, centred on advertising their product everywhere, from newspapers to demonstrators touring around America. Some slogans aimed specifically at mothers: “Mothers say: We want to give our families the right foods.” (Veit 2019, p.413), pulling at the insecurities of mothers to coerce them into purchasing Crisco. The marketing strategies worked, and Crisco became ubiquitous in American cookery. This reveals how the rise of industrial foods came to rely on heavy, coercive marketing that relied on pulling at consumer’s consciences and morals to rely on the brand rather than the product itself.
Before industrialisation, most people couldn’t help but be aware of the origins and ingredients of their food, but the rise of industrial food created “a new form of consumer ignorance” (Veit 2019, p.410) and reveals the extent to which companies capitalised on consumer needs, in this case for cheaper shortening, to isolate the public from needing to know the ingredients of their food, creating a heavier reliance on these products and leading to a brand becoming indispensable, an institution almost. Therefore, the public came to believe that it was the brand that decided the trustworthiness of a product, not the product itself.
In conclusion, the demonising of non-processed food products and creation of consumer ignorance is a key aspect of the rise of industrial foods that still happens today, where supermarkets are flooded with food products that many people do not know the origins or ingredients of.
“Ignorance is not simply a natural absence; in some cases, indeed, it is a “deliberately engineered and strategic ploy.”” (Proctor quoted in Veit 2019, p.410).
If you would like to learn more about Cottonseed Oil, the main source for this article (listed below) is a fantastic read and also contains an extensive bibliography:
Veit, Helen Zoe, “Eating Cotton: Cottonseed, Crisco, and Consumer Ignorance.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 18, no. 4 (2019), pp.397-421. doi:10.1017/S1537781419000276,