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The industry has moved quickly to replace partially hydrogenated oils, which cause trans-fatty acids, before government regulation. From KFC to 19-unit Pat & Oscars, operators of all sizes have begun testing or have already rolled out trans-fat free oils--typically created from Canola, soybeans or sunflower seeds. Lost in the marketing and buying shuffle of these oils is cottonseed oil--the original vegetable oil introduced in the mid-1800s.
"Restaurant operators have a limited understanding of cottonseed oil," says Heidi Nelson, spokesperson for the National Cottonseed Products Association.
Nelson is trying to build awareness about cottonseed-based oils at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel Motel Show May 19-22. Nelson hopes her message of "premium quality" and "neutral taste" hits home with some of the 73,000 attendees.
"Cottonseed was the solution when the foodservice industry was moving away from lard," she says.
According to the NCPA, cottonseed oil trades about 10 to 15 percent or 3 to 5 cents more than soybean oil on the Chicago Board of Trade. The oil reduces the hydrogenation time, Nelson says, and deep-fried cottonseed oils do not have to be discarded as often and has a longer shelf life.
"Cottonseed oil last longer than most oils," she says. "And it has an unobjectionable neutral flavor. It does not experience an undesirable flavor when it breaks down."
The NCPA says cottonseed oil with 0.01-percent free fatty acids has a smoke point of about 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Annual U.S. cottonseed oil production has averaged about 877 million pounds over the last five years. There are 13 processing facilities, primarily in the South, producing brands such as ACH Frymax and Wesson Smart Choice. NCPA says one third of cottonseed oil goes into snack food production, but it's trying to make a splash in restaurants.
Nelson says cottonseed oils are being used or tested in several major quick-service brands. In & Out Burger uses cottonseed oil, and family dining Buca di Beppo recently rolled out Wesson Smart Choice in its 92 company-owned restaurants. But by and large, operators don't know about the oils.
In an NCPA survey, canola and soybean were ranked extremely higher than other oils.
"Perhaps people aren't familiar with (cottonseed oil) because we don't see cotton itself," said a decision maker in a NCPA study. "We see olive trees, grapes growing many places but we don't see cotton growing. (And) soy products get a lot of press."
Says Nelson: "We're just trying to make a comeback." --Fred Minnick