by Blair White
Most Americans don’t realize they consume two pints of cottonseed oil every year. And that’s okay. In addition to supporting cotton farmers across the nation, the consumption of cottonseed oil has been proven to provide health benefits that can outweigh those of oils that are presently labeled as “the gold standard.” According to Tom Wedegaertner, Director of Cottonseed Research at Cotton Incorporated in Cary, North Carolina, an estimated 600 million pounds of the oil is consumed annually.
Before Tom Wedegaertner began working in cottonseed oil research at Cotton Inc., he studied animal science and earned an MBA. That preparation launched his career starting at the National Cottonseed Products Association. Eventually, he landed at Cotton Incorporated in the early 1990s. For the past 28 years, he has held steadfast to his cottonseed research in an effort to adhere to Cotton Inc.’s mission: to increase demand and profitability for cotton.
“There’s really two ways to increase profitability for a grower,” Wedegaertner said, “either reduce their input costs or increase the value of their outputs. I work more on the value of the outputs. The goal is to increase the value of the cottonseed, so I conduct research to try to find ways for the cotton growers to get more money for their seed.”
Oil in the Seed = Gas in the Tank
Cottonseed oil plays a vital role from the beginning of a cotton season. Wedegaertner said the amount of oil in the cottonseed is a very important part of growing a good crop. “The oil content of the seed is very important because it is the primary factor that determines the germination and seedling vigor,” he said. “The oil in the seed is kind of the gas in the tank. The other part of that is that oil is the second most valuable part of the cotton crop, behind the lint, on a per pound basis. Getting the increased value because of increased oil content, or demand for oil, that helps growers, ginners, and oil mills.”
Research at Cotton Inc. is concentrated on oil yields and percentages because if the oil content of cottonseed is increased, the value of the seed is increased as well. A key component of Cotton Inc.’s investigation is identifying the optimum seed size. Small seeds can often cause problems for gins and oil mills, and at the same time, not carry adequate amounts of oil. Conversely, a larger seed size does not always indicate higher oil yields.
“It does us no good to have a really big seed that doesn’t have any oil in it,” Wedegaertner said. “I’m sure there’s a correlation with a larger seed and more oil in that seed, but if you have a large seed that only has 14 percent oil versus a smaller seed that has 23 percent oil, certainly the smaller seed with more oil would be more desirable. Research is underway to not only increase the oil content percentage per seed, but also to discover what that optimum size is and to try to convince the seed industry to select for that optimum size.”
Wedegaertner also said molecular biologists at Cotton Inc. are focused on the three genes responsible for oil content in cottonseed. In the future, they hope to embark on genetic-modification research in an effort to increase oil yield.
“A cottonseed typically has about 16-18 percent oil and it’s possible, based on what we are seeing, that we should be able to run that up into the low to mid 20s,” he said. “If we could go from 16 to 20 or 25 percent oil, that would dramatically improve the value of the seed and the seedling vigor.”
However, the amount of oil in the seed is only one part of the equation. In addition to oil yields, oil quality is also a point of focus as the two go hand-in-hand.
“Increasing the quality of the oil will help increase demand and utilization of cottonseed oil, so we are working on both,” Wedegaertner said. “The number one thing we keep in mind is we do not want to have any negative impact whatsoever on fiber yields or fiber quality, because you know, that is what we grow the crop for. So, we are very aware that whatever we do to the seed should not have a negative impact on fiber.”
The Real Gold Standard
The integrity of fatty acids, in terms of dietary requirements, is often up for debate within the health community. Recent research efforts by Wedegaertner and his team have uncovered evidence that cottonseed oil is, in reality, more of a true gold standard than a large number of its competitors.
“Nutrition wise, cottonseed oil is a polyunsaturated oil,” Wedegaertner said. “The fatty acid profile of cottonseed oil (the amount of monosaturates, polyunsaturates, and saturated fatty acids that you see on nutrition labels), is about as close as we can get to what is recommended by the American Heart Association. I know the glow is on canola and olive oil because of the high monounsaturates, but the American Heart Association actually recommends more of a blend of those three different levels of saturation.”
Specifically, Wedegaertner said cottonseed oil is roughly 50 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, 25-27 percent saturated fatty acids, and about 20 percent monounsaturated fatty acids. Technically speaking, cottonseed oil is classified as the same type of oil as soy or corn oil, however it is a much more stable oil due to its higher levels of vitamin E compounds which contribute to its shelf life and cooking stability.
The health benefits of cottonseed oil do not stop there either. In 2018, Cotton Inc. sponsored research to be conducted on healthy male subjects comparing the impacts of a diet rich in cottonseed oil to a diet rich in olive oil on their blood lipid chemistry.
“We were pleasantly surprised, these healthy men ended up having improved blood lipid chemistry,” Wedegaertner said. “They had reduced cholesterol, reduced triglycerides, improved HDL, and they also consumed about 80 less calories per meal. We also identified a unique fatty acid that is only found in cottonseed oil, DHSA. It seems to be responsible for the improvements we have seen in blood lipid chemistry. We are now doing a follow-up study with subjects that have a blood lipid problem such as high cholesterol or high triglycerides.”
Another characteristic of cottonseed oil that contributes to its health benefits is the high smoke point the oil carries. Wedegaertner said this is a prime reason the food service industry is the primary user of cottonseed oil as it helps reduce the amount of oil left on food when it is served.
“The amount of oil that is in the food is determined by the temperature at which the food is fried,” he said. “The lower the temperature, the greasier the food. One of our number one export markets for cottonseed oil is to Japan for tempura frying. When frying the tempura, you want the oil to be very hot and the tempura to not be greasy at all. So, cottonseed oil works well in food applications where you want the food to be less greasy.”
A Premium Purchase
Contrary to popular belief, cotton is grown and regulated as a food crop. In the U.S., cotton is farmed under numerous regulations from government entities such as the USDA and EPA which ensures the products and co-products of the seed are safe for human consumption. While the oil is mainly used in the food service industry and restaurants pay a premium for it, cottonseed oil can be found on grocery store shelves or online as well. Wedegaertner encouraged the increased use of the oil among consumers and mentioned almost everyone has likely consumed the oil at some point.
“It’s a great oil, it’s just over-looked and under-consumed,” he said. “When people say ‘I’ve never eaten cottonseed oil,’ I say have you ever gone to a drive-up window and ordered french fries and chicken nuggets? Then there’s a pretty good chance you’ve consumed your two pints of cottonseed oil.”
The large number of benefits cottonseed oil adds to the supply chain from top to bottom are quite clear in terms of value and health. To help support the cotton industry in a different way, Wedegaertner suggests purchasing cottonseed oil and sharing it with family and friends.
“I would encourage especially cotton farmers to go online and buy some. People need to start using it and they will see what a good oil it is. Get out there and start endorsing cottonseed oil and get your friends to give it a try.”