Is Cottonseed Oil Healthy? A Deep Dive Into Its Nutrition Profile
Cottonseed oil may not be as well known as, say, olive oil or canola oil, but there's a good chance you've consumed it. Found in prepackaged snacks, fried restaurant meals, and home-cooked dishes, this under-the-radar oil has an undetectable flavor and offers some health benefits. But should cottonseed oil be a staple in your pantry?
We investigated the latest research and asked registered dietitians to break down its perks, drawbacks, and nutrition profile to help you decide if cottonseed oil should be a part of your diet.
What is cottonseed oil?
Cottonseed oil is exactly what it sounds like: a cooking oil derived from the seeds of the cotton plant, says Desiree Nielsen, R.D., a registered dietitian who focuses on plant-based nutrition and gut health.
The oil has been extracted from the cotton plant, primarily for soaps, since the mid-19th century. But in 1911, it became a popular cooking ingredient in the U.S., thanks to the invention of Crisco, which was initially made from hydrogenated cottonseed oil2. (Today, Crisco is made from soybean and palm oils.)
"It's not going to add flavor to any foods, and it can be used for frying efficiently," she explains. "The use of cottonseed oil also helps to extend shelf life, which is why it's common to see it in manufactured foods." Cottonseed oil can be used for at-home cooking and baking too.
- Calories: 124
- Fat: 14 grams
- Saturated fat: 3.63 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 2.49 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 7.27 grams (mostly omega-6)
- Vitamin E: 4.94 milligrams
While different cottonseed strains may have slightly different compositions, cottonseed oil's fatty acid profile is generally about 50% polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), 20% monounsaturated fat (MUFA), and 20% saturated fat, says Nielsen. You need all varieties of fat for energy and to help the body absorb specific vitamins.
On the flip side, cottonseed oil contains unsaturated fat, which may be beneficial for cardiovascular health5. Specifically, "we have plenty of research6 to suggest that monounsaturated fat is beneficial, particularly when we swap saturated fats [with it]," adds Nielsen. Polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, also need to be obtained through your diet to support your metabolism, she explains.
While omega-6 fatty acids have a bad rep for being pro-inflammatory, "after a decade of research, we see that omega-6-rich foods and oils are not detrimental to human health, do not cause inflammation in humans, and are beneficial," says Nielsen. "Again, when we consume more polyunsaturated fats in place of the saturated fats, like tropical oils and even dairy, we see benefits."
What's most important to keeping inflammation in check is consuming a balanced ratio of omega-6s and omega-3s. Cottonseed oil has a much higher proportion of omega-6s than omega-3s.
Different forms of cottonseed oil.
Refined cottonseed oil is the only variety you'll find in the grocery store or as an ingredient in processed foods.
"There are a lot of different solvents that are used to refine cottonseed oil," says Nielsen. But she notes that they're there for a reason: to remove gossypol, which is toxic to humans in high doses. "The cottonseed oil that is used for human consumption needs to have all of the gossypol removed so that it's safe to eat."
There are a few forms of cottonseed oil on the market that fall within this refined umbrella and are gossypol-free:
- Organic: The main difference between organic and non-organic cottonseed oil is the type of seeds used and how they're processed. "[When] organic growing methods are used, the seeds are non-GMO," says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of Eating From Our Roots. Organic seed oils are typically expeller-pressed (meaning the oil is pressed out of the seed with a machine) rather than extracted with a solvent, as the chemicals used generally aren't considered organic, she adds. However, this likely doesn't change the nutritional profile of cottonseed oil, she says.
- Partially hydrogenated: Some cottonseed oils are partially hydrogenated, a manufacturing process that involves adding hydrogen to the oil, which turns the liquid into a solid fat at room temperature. The byproduct: trans fats, which increase LDL cholesterol7 levels and should be avoided, says Nielsen.
Benefits of cottonseed oil:
It may improve cardiovascular health in moderation.
Thanks to its high unsaturated fat content, cottonseed oil may be beneficial for cardiovascular health; it's been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol, says Feller.
Specifically, in a small 2018 study published in Nutrition Research8, participants who consumed a diet high in cottonseed oil for five days had lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels after the intervention. The participants also showed higher levels of HDL cholesterol, which absorbs cholesterol in the blood9, transports it to the liver, and flushes it from the body.
A 2022 study published in the Journal of Nutrition10, in which participants with high cholesterol satisfied 30% of their energy needs with cottonseed oil for eight weeks, had similar results. The study showed that after the intervention, the participants had "substantial improvements" in fasting and post-meal blood lipid levels. And these findings are important: When LDL blood cholesterol levels are high, plaque begins to build up on blood vessel walls, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke9.
It contains beneficial antioxidants.
A tablespoon serving of cottonseed oil offers nearly 5 milligrams of vitamin E, or roughly one-third of the recommended dietary allowance for the nutrient11 for individuals 14 years or older.
The fat-soluble vitamin has antioxidant properties, meaning it helps counteract oxidative stress—caused by exercise, converting food into energy, and air pollution, among other sources—that can potentially lead to cell damage over time, says Nielsen.
It may ease inflammation in moderation.
Although research on this benefit is limited, some initial studies suggest that cottonseed oil may lower inflammation, says Feller. For example, researchers found that the antioxidants, fatty acids (such as linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid), and other natural compounds found in cottonseed oil can help fend off inflammation12.
Other animal research backs up this potential benefit. In a 2020 study13 on rodents that were injected with cottonseed oil, researchers found that the treatment reduced the activation of microglia (immune cells in the brain) and astrocytes (brain cells that hold nerve cells in place). In turn, neuroinflammation was minimized, alleviating injury caused by ischemic stroke, the researchers stated.
The downsides of cottonseed oil.
Beyond being highly processed and used in unhealthy preparations like deep-frying, there are a few other health concerns to consider with cottonseed oil, namely:
It contains saturated fat.
Although cottonseed oil is rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, it does contain some saturated fat, which may raise LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol in high amounts and, consequently, increase the risk for heart disease, says Feller.
"The best, evidence-informed guidelines tend to state that [saturated fat should be] no more than 7% of energy intake or total calories per day," adds Nielsen. For a person following a 2,000-calorie diet, that means capping daily saturated fat intake off at roughly 15.5 grams. (This is equivalent to roughly 4 tablespoons of cottonseed oil.)
Another point to note is that most of the polyunsaturated fats in cottonseed oil are omega-6 fatty acids, which are prevalent in packaged foods and need to be balanced out with omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
It's usually genetically modified.
If genetic modification is a personal concern, you may want to look for cottonseed oil with a non-GMO or organic certification; in 2020, 96% of all cotton planted in the U.S. was genetically modified15. Some cotton growers are testing genetically modified seeds to enhance the oil's nutritional and functional properties16.
Cotton is high in pesticides and has a significant environmental impact.
Of any crop grown in the United States, conventional cotton is the third greatest user of pesticides, with an average of 3.8 pounds of pesticides being used per acre grown17. And pesticide use is only growing: Between 2011 and 2019, the number of conventional cotton acres in the U.S. that were treated with pesticides increased by roughly 38%.
The oil itself may also contain traces of these harmful pesticides21.
So, is cottonseed oil healthy?
As with many vegetable and seed oils, cottonseed oil is not inherently unhealthy, and it can be a part of a well-balanced eating pattern. However, it needs to be consumed in moderation—not in the high amounts you'll find in many heavily processed and fried foods these days.
While you shouldn't stress about adding a tablespoon or two to your skillet for roasted veggies, you'll generally want to avoid deep-frying your food in it, says Nielsen.
By the same token, be conscientious of the processed foods you're consuming: Highly processed foods—such as those that contain cottonseed oil—also often contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, which are known to have negative health impacts.
Cottonseed oil vs. other oils.
Cottonseed oil vs. olive oil
A tablespoon of olive oil has a similar nutrition profile to cottonseed oil: It offers just 2 additional calories and the same amount of overall fat as its counterpart. However, olive oil is slightly lower in saturated fat (2.17 grams), much lower in polyunsaturated fat (1.33 grams), and significantly higher in monounsaturated fat (9.58 grams)22.
The smoke point of olive oil depends on the specific variety. Extra-virgin olive oil's smoke point is 350 degrees, extra-virgin olive oil's smoke point is 420 degrees, and basic olive oil's smoke point may range from 390 to 470 degrees. So while it isn't as suitable for high-heat cooking or frying, olive oil is a healthier pick overall.
Cottonseed oil vs. sunflower oil
Like olive oil, a tablespoon of sunflower oil contains the same amount of total fat as cottonseed oil, but it offers higher levels of monounsaturated (2.73 grams) and polyunsaturated (9.2 grams) fat24. Sunflower oil also boasts less than half the amount of saturated fat (1.44 grams) than cottonseed oil, potentially making it a better option for heart health. Sunflower oil also has a higher smoke point of 450 degrees, so it's better for high-temp cooking.
However, sunflower oil is also highly refined and high in omega-6 PUFAs, so it's not the healthiest choice.
Cottonseed oil vs. canola oil
Both cottonseed and canola oils contain 14 grams of fat, but the latter offers less saturated fat (0.92 gram) than its counterpart25. Canola oil also boasts more than three times the amount of monounsaturated fat and half the amount of polyunsaturated fat as cottonseed oil, so it may have greater heart-health benefits.
That said, canola oil has a smoke point of just 400 degrees, so it's not the ideal choice for baking, grilling, or frying. It's also often genetically modified and highly refined.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is cottonseed oil better than olive oil?
Although a small study found that cottonseed oil may have a greater positive impact on cholesterol levels than olive oil, the results can't be applied to the general population. Olive oil is also lower in saturated fat, and its health benefits are backed by decades of research, so it's a healthier pick if it's within your budget, says Nielsen.
Does cottonseed oil cause inflammation?
Current, yet limited, research shows that cottonseed oil may reduce inflammation due to its antioxidants, fatty acids, and other natural compounds. But only if it's consumed in moderation and in a diet rich in omega-3s.
Is cottonseed oil good for cooking?
Thanks to its high smoke point and neutral flavor, cottonseed oil can be a good occasional cooking ingredient. It's particularly useful when baking moist, chewy treats and creating whipped toppings. However, it should be consumed in moderation. Olive oil and avocado oil are much healthier picks for everyday cooking.
Incorporating cottonseed oil into your diet in moderation may have some benefits, but the oil comes with potential environmental and ethical costs and contains some cholesterol-raising fat. So don't sweat the occasional treat made with cottonseed oil, but look for more nutritious options—like avocado oil or olive oil—for everyday cooking.
Megan Falk is an experienced health and wellness journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as SHAPE.com, Health.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Equinox, DoctorOz.com, and SAVEUR magazine, among others. Most recently, she was the assistant editor at SHAPE.com, primarily covering exercise tips, fitness modalities, workout trends, nutrition, and more.
Megan is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a bachelor's degree in Magazine Journalism and a minor in Food Studies. She's also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise.