I recently came across the interesting story of how and why Crisco was developed and marketed. The history of Crisco is essentially the history of our modern lab-created, highly processed food. Through highly successful marketing, lab food has gradually and insidiously replaced many of our delicious and healthy traditional foods.
History of Crisco
Crisco, which is derived from crystallized cottonseed oil, was invented by Procter & Gamble in the early 1900’s. Candle maker William Procter and soap maker James Gamble launched their company in 1837. P&G’s Ivory soap, made from hydrogenated cottonseed oil, had been very successful. Ivory was the first mass-produced branded soap, replacing the bulk soap previously sold at local stores. The process of hydrogenation, initially developed by chemists to produce soap, proved to be useful to create Crisco as well. Crisco was invented by chemists, not developed by cooks in kitchens. Sound appetizing? Why would you want to eat it?
The Marketing of Crisco
Crisco was introduced in 1911 and initially marketed by paying customers (such as train lines) to use it instead of lard. Testimonials from doctors and rabbis (as a kosher substitute for lard and butter) were solicited and society teas were held in many U.S. cities at which all the baked foods were made with Crisco.
P&G published a cookbook, The Story of Crisco, where all of the 615 recipes used Crisco and which praised its benefits and versatility. The cookbook became very popular, partly because it was often given away free, prompting many home cooks to begin using Crisco for their baking.
The introduction to the Crisco cookbook gives a highly favorable view of the newly invented fat, calling it an “altogether new and better fat.” The book emphasizes the digestibility of Crisco calling it a healthier alternative to lard and butter. Even more concerning is that Crisco is specifically promoted for children. [source]
Health Problems with Crisco
The hydrogenation process used to make Crisco creates a plastic-like fat with a much higher melting temperature than the oils it is made from. This “plastic” fat contains trans fatty acids which are dangerous because they “are sufficiently similar to natural fats that the body readily incorporates them into the cell membrane; once there their altered chemical structure creates havoc with thousands of necessary chemical reactions—everything from energy provision to prostaglandin production.” [source]
P&G did not know at first about the dangers of trans fatty acids, but here’s what happened when evidence began to appear about problems of heart disease, cancer, learning disorders, and infertility:
“P&G worked behind the scenes to cover them up. One scientist who worked for P&G, Dr. Fred Mattson, can be credited with presenting the US government’s inconclusive Lipid Research Clinics Trials to the public as proof that animal fats caused heart disease. He was also one of the baleful influences that persuaded the American Heart Association to preach the phony gospel of the Lipid Hypothesis.” [source]
The New Crisco
Maybe as a result of these increasing problems from trans fats, P&G divested itself in 2002 of the Crisco brand, which is now produced by J. M. Smucker Co. The current formula for Crisco is not made with cottonseed oil but is a “blend of soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, and partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils.” [source] Even though it’s claimed that “a serving” of the new Crisco is trans fat-free, legally defined as containing less than 0.5 g of trans fat, notice that Crisco still includes hydrogenated oils and is still a highly processed, lab-created food. It probably contains as much trans fat as allowed without having to admit it. It is not really trans fat-free, nor is any product that includes hydrogenated oils. [source]
The Success of Crisco
P&G’s cottonseed oil Crisco was such a huge marketing success that my mother, grandmother, aunts, and almost every other cook I knew growing up used Crisco to cook just about everything–fried foods like chicken, cakes, pies, biscuits, and on and on. They believed, just like the advertising said, that everything cooked better in Crisco. They believed it was healthy and safe–never questioned it. We didn’t even have any butter or lard in the house. Were people more gullible to marketing then? No, I don’t think so. We all need to find out about the foods we eat, know the sources, how they were grown and prepared, and avoid boxes and packages of processed foods. Never just believe advertising without research!
Although now I try to eat traditional, nutritious foods and cook with healthy fats, I may never know the extent of the damage to my health caused by the Crisco and the other lab-created “foods” I ate for so many years.
Note on Cottonseed Oil:
This is not directly related to the history of Crisco, but I’ve always found it strange that we eat cottonseed oil. Cotton itself is not and, as far as I know, has never been used as a food, other than for animals. So why is the oil of the cotton seed called a “vegetable” oil and used in so many foods? To meet regulations, cottonseed oil must be refined, bleached, and deodorized to remove a toxic compound called gossypol. Cottonseed oil is used primarily because it is a cheap by-product of the cotton industry. [source]
An additional problem with cottonseed oil today is that, as of 2012, 80% of U.S. cotton is genetically engineered. [source] More research is needed to understand the effect of genetic engineering on the oil of a plant.
Crisco: Product-Driven Marketing Evolution by Seth Goding
The Story of Crisco by Marion Harris Neil
The Rise and Fall of Crisco by Linda Joyce Forristal
Man’s Most Important Food is Fat: The Use of Persuasive Techniques in Proctor & Gamble’s Public Relations Campaign to Introduce Crisco, 1911-1913 by Susan C. Pendleton
The Oiling of America by Mary G. Enig, PhD, and Sally Fallon
Cottonseed oil, Wikipedia
Healthy Crisco? by Heather Gehlert
Related Real Food Houston posts
Update January 23, 2015: More information about the origin of Crisco–Who Killed Lard?