Using Whole Cottonseed Benefits Nutrition and the Environment
November 11, 2022
Research and insights on how whole cottonseeds are being used and their greater potential.
Much of the agricultural sustainability research and best practices revolves around doing more with our resources, i.e. using water, fertilizer and energy more wisely. But the premise can have even greater impacts applied to the other end of a crop’s lifecycle, when you find uses for more of the plant, providing benefits without additional agricultural inputs. Cottonseed is emerging as just such a byproduct.
Currently, cottonseed can be used to feed dairy cattle, and the seed kernels can be crushed to make cottonseed oil, a highly stable oil with countless uses. Depending on the size of the U.S cotton crop, more than 6 million tons of cottonseed are harvested annually, which, used to their full potential, could benefit human nutrition and the planet in numerous ways.
How Cottonseed Use Supports Sustainable Agriculture
Because it’s a byproduct of cotton fiber production, cottonseed doesn’t require any additional agricultural inputs. Every ounce of cottonseed used instead of grain or corn specifically produced for cattle feed reduces the overall water, fertilizer and energy use across the agriculture industry.
Cottonseed also provides excellent nutrition to cattle because it’s high in protein, but also high in energy (fat) and fiber—in fact, whole cottonseed covers almost a quarter of cattle’s daily intake of crude protein, fat and fiber. This combination of protein, fat and fiber in whole cottonseed is particularly beneficial for early lactation dairy cows. Currently, more than 50% of the annual supply of whole cottonseed is consumed by dairy cattle. Multiple studies have shown that whole cottonseed increases both milk production and milk fat when added to dairy cow rations.1
Cottonseed Oil and Climate Impacts
Human consumption of cottonseeds takes the form of cottonseed oil. Cottonseed oil has a 2:1 ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fats, contains monosaturated fats and is cholesterol free. It has a naturally high smoke point (450°F) which makes it an ideal frying choice in commercial kitchens. It also has a neutral flavor that does not change over time, making it an excellent base for salad oils and marinades.
What’s more, cottonseed oil has advantages for climate change over other seed oils. That’s because the inputs involved in cultivating soybean, canola and palm oils drive their main environmental impact, and as cottonseed oil is a co-product with cotton lint, its agricultural inputs are dramatically lower. One life-cycle assessment study comparing these oils found that refined cottonseed oil can reduce climate change impacts by up to 83%.
Research on Better Ways to Use Cottonseed
Experts like Dr. Evy Jaconis, one of Cotton Incorporated’s directors of agriculture and environmental research, are exploring new benefits and uses for cottonseed oil. Their current projects fall into three categories:
- Animal nutrition and using the whole cottonseed for beef and dairy cattle.
- Human nutrition and how cottonseed oil impacts cholesterol profiles and inflammation.
- Breeding cotton to understand and potentially increase the amount of oil in the seed.
All three study areas inform each other, and Jaconis says what excites her most about the research is the possibility of being able to connect benefits through the entire plant lifecycle.
“Recent research suggests that cottonseed oil may lead to improved cholesterol profiles. As we continue to investigate potential benefits of cottonseed oil, we are trying to increase the amount of oil in the seed,” Jaconis says. “But we’re also looking at whether the oil is important to planting seed quality. If the oil is important from plant growth all the way to outcome in terms of byproduct utilization, that could really make an impact.”
Currently Jaconis and the scientists she works with are still building the body of evidence around cottonseed oil’s nutritional value, but they have seen some changes to blood lipid chemistry in studies where people are consuming cottonseed oil.
Widespread cottonseed use is still in the future, but awareness and interest is growing every day. The foodservice industry is exploring the benefits of switching to cottonseed oil and the versatility it provides. While not widespread at this time, consumers can find cottonseed oil at specialty shops or online. The milk you drink might well have come from cottonseed-fed cows. Check the labels on your favorite chips and peanut butter. You might be surprised to find cottonseed oil in the ingredients.
1 Bernard, JK. Performance of Lactating Dairy Cows Fed Whole Cottonseed Coated with Gelatinized Cornstarch. J. Dairy. Sci., vol. 82, no. 6, 1 June 1999, pp. 1305–1309., doi:
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