Navigate to Food section

How Cotton Became King—of Passover

Cottonseed oil is ubiquitous in kosher-for-Passover foods. How did that happen, and can it be changed?

Leah Koenig
March 23, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

When it comes to Passover cuisine, most home cooks know to avoid wheat, oats, rye, and other forbidden ingredients. But what consumers might not realize is just how much cotton they eat during the holiday. Yes, cotton—not the fluffy white stuff, per se, (though some might accuse matzo of tasting about as exciting as the fabric fiber), but the oil extracted from cotton seeds.

Flip over a package of kosher-for-Passover cake mix (or mayonnaise, soup mandlen, potato chips, cooking sauces, Tam Tam crackers, matzo ball soup mix, canned tuna, margarine, or salad dressing, to name a few), and cottonseed oil is almost certain to show up in the ingredient list. All of the major Passover manufacturers sell cottonseed oil by the liter for frying, baking, and sautéing at home. And that bottle labeled “vegetable oil”? That’s probably cottonseed, too—never mind that nobody has ever added chopped cotton to a salad.

So how did the cotton plant become the hidden star of the American Passover table? Ironically enough, you can likely thank your bubbe’s flaky pie crust for that. In 1911, Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco shortening as a vegetable-based alternative to lard. According to Michael Wex’s book Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, P&G’s marketing team “went straight for the Jewish market,” realizing that “a neutral-tasting shortening with no dairy or meat ingredients might strike a chord” with cooks looking to make pareve cookies and pies. They were right beyond their wildest imagining.

Crisco’s name, a shortened mashup of “crystallized cottonseed oil,” came from its primary ingredient—the same ingredient, not coincidentally, as P&G’s other star product, Ivory soap. Kosher-keeping consumers fell hard for Crisco—which today is made with soybean oil and palm oil—helping cement cottonseed oil’s role in the kosher food industry. “I don’t know how many consumers would have been aware of the importance of cottonseed oil to Crisco—I’m rather inclined to think that their inquisitiveness stopped at the hekhsher,” Wex told me. “But I’d think that its presence in Crisco helped give somebody at Procter & Gamble, or some other firm, the idea of using it for Passover.”

Indeed it did. Two decades later in the 1930s, another miracle of kosher consumption transpired: the arrival of kosher Coca-Cola. And once again, cottonseed oil was a hero of the story. According to Marcie Cohen Ferris’ Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, Atlanta-based Rabbi Tobias Geffen persuaded the soft-drink behemoth to alter its closely guarded secret recipe to suit kosher consumers’ needs. “Coca-Cola…agreed to use cottonseed oil in their recipe instead of a tallow-based product,” she writes.

With friends like Crisco and Coca-Cola, is it any wonder that cottonseed oil would go on to become a darling of the kosher industry? The domestically produced oil, which is inexpensive and has a long shelf life, also enjoys widespread use in the larger American food industry, particularly with fast-food and snack-food companies. But its presence is most dramatically ubiquitous in the Passover aisle. The reason? Most other popular cooking oils, like soybean, corn, peanut, sunflower, and canola (made from rapeseed), are considered kitniyot by American kosher-certifying agencies, and therefore a no-go during the weeklong holiday. Cotton, on the other hand, is neither grain nor legume, and so theoretically poses no problems on Passover. Interestingly, in Israel, cottonseed is generally regarded as kitniyot (since it resembles rapeseed), which means Passover products manufactured there typically don’t include it. But in America, where cotton production is literally woven into the country’s fabric, it is not surprising that the head rabbis took a more lenient approach.

How cotton became America’s de facto oil source on Passover offers an interesting tidbit of history. But while cotton may be, as the long-running marketing campaign goes, “the fabric of our lives,” it arguably should not be the oil of our Seders.

Cottonseed oil, after all, is a byproduct of the larger cotton industry. Since cotton is classified as a “non-food,” it is not subject to the same regulations as, say, soybeans or corn, and is heavily sprayed with pesticides that are otherwise banned from food crops. According to a joint report by the World Health Organization and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, residues from those pesticides have been found in processed cottonseed oil during field trials, which means consumers can be exposed to them without realizing it. Cottonseed oil also has higher levels of saturated fat than other plant oils, which is associated with heart disease.

Allison Buckingham, a certified dietitian-nutritionist who co-owns Perelandra Natural Foods in Brooklyn, said she won’t carry any products containing cottonseed oil: “I tell my staff that if you see it in a product, it’s an indicator that the manufacturer is focused on low cost and shelf life above all else.”

The draw toward cottonseed oil within the kosher industry is understandable. Kosher food products tend to be more expensive than non-certified ones, so why wouldn’t a company look for ways to cut costs (which they can pass on to customers to stay competitive) elsewhere? But there are healthier options for those looking for them, especially when one starts with whole ingredients, rather than prepared products. “I use extra-virgin olive oil in most of my savory cooking on Passover,” said Paula Shoyer, author of several cookbooks including The New Passover Menu and The Healthy Jewish Kitchen. For baking, she turns to coconut oil as a margarine substitute on Passover and year-round. “I add a little more vanilla to the dessert to mask the coconut flavor.”

Meanwhile, a variety of other Passover-certified cooking and flavoring oils like safflower, grape seed, and walnut are available. Change within the food industry (and the kosher food industry in particular) can be slow-going, which means cottonseed oil will likely maintain its significant presence in the Passover aisle for the foreseeable future. But for consumers who are looking to avoid the risks that go along with it, cotton does not have to be king.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.