How Crisco toppled lard – and made Americans believers in industrial food
It's about believing in the purity of the process. melissamn / Shutterstock.com
Perhaps dig out a can of Crisco for the Christmas baking season. If so, you are one of millions of Americans who have used it to make cookies, cakes, pie crusts, and more for generations.
But with all of Crisco's popularity, what exactly is that thick, white substance in a can?
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If you are not sure, you are not alone.
For decades, Crisco had only one ingredient, cottonseed oil. But most consumers never knew. This ignorance was no accident.
A century ago, Crisco marketers pioneered revolutionary advertising techniques that encouraged consumers not to worry about ingredients and to rely on trusted brands instead. It was a successful strategy that other companies would eventually copy.
Schmalz faces competition
For most of the 19th century, cottonseed was a nuisance. When cotton gins combed the ballooning cotton crops of the south to produce clean fibers, they left mountains of seeds behind. Early attempts to grind these seeds resulted in oil that was unattractively dark and smelly. Many farmers simply let their cottonseed heaps rot.
It was only after a chemist named David Wesson pioneered industrial bleaching and deodorization in the late 19th century that cottonseed oil became clear, tasteless, and smelled neutral enough to appeal to consumers. Soon companies were selling cottonseed oil itself as a liquid or mixing it with animal fats to make cheap, solid shortening that was sold in buckets to resemble lard.
Shortening's main competitor was Schmalz. Earlier generations of Americans had made lard at home after slaughtering pigs in the fall, but by the late 19th century meat processors were making lard on an industrial scale. Lard had a noticeable taste of pork, but there isn't much evidence that 19th century Americans protested against it, even on cakes and tarts. Instead, the problem was cost. While lard prices remained relatively high in the early 20th century, cottonseed oil was plentiful and cheap.
At the time, Americans associated cotton mostly with clothes, shirts, and napkins, not food.
That said, early cottonseed oil and shortening companies went out of their way to highlight their connection with cotton. They extolled the conversion of cottonseed from annoying scraps to useful consumer goods as a sign of ingenuity and progress. Brands like Cottolene and Cotosuet drew attention to cotton with their names and incorporated images of cotton into their advertising.
When Crisco was launched in 1911, things looked different.
Like other brands, it was made from cotton seeds. But it was also a new type of fat - the world's first solid shortening made entirely from what was once a liquid vegetable oil. Instead of solidifying cottonseed oil by mixing it with animal fat like the other brands, Crisco used a brand new process called hydrogenation, which Procter & Gamble, inventors of Crisco, perfected after years of research and development.
From the beginning, the company's marketers talked a lot about the wonders of hydrogenation - what they called the "Crisco Process" - but avoided any mention of cottonseed. At the time, there was no law requiring food companies to list ingredients, although virtually all food packaging provided at least enough information to answer the most basic of all questions: what is it?
In contrast, Crisco marketers only offered evasion and euphemism. Crisco was made from "100% Shortening" as stated in the marketing materials, and "Crisco is Crisco and nothing else". Sometimes they pointed to the vegetable kingdom: Crisco was “purely vegetable”, “purely vegetable” or “absolutely vegetable”. In its most specific form, advertisements stated that it was made from "vegetable oil," a relatively new phrase popularized by Crisco.
But why go out of all this effort not to mention cottonseed oil when consumers have already knowingly purchased it from other companies?
The truth was that cottonseed had a mixed reputation and it only got worse when Crisco hit the market. A handful of unscrupulous companies secretly used cheap cottonseed oil to cut expensive olive oil, so some consumers considered it an adulterer. Others associated cottonseed oil with soap or with its emerging industrial uses in dyes, roofing tar, and explosives. Still others read alarming headlines about how cottonseed meal contained a toxic compound when cottonseed oil itself contained none of it.
Rather than focusing on the problematic sole ingredient, Crisco's marketers have put consumer focus on brand reliability and the purity of modern food processing in the factory.
Crisco flew off the shelves. In contrast to lard, Crisco had a neutral taste. Unlike butter, Crisco could sit on the shelf for years. Unlike olive oil, it had a high smoking temperature for frying. Because Crisco was the only solid shortening made entirely from plants, it was valued by Jewish consumers who followed dietary restrictions that prohibited mixing meat and dairy products in a single meal.
In just five years, Americans bought more than 60 million cans of Crisco annually, which is the equivalent of three cans for every family in the country. Within a generation, lard went from being a staple of the American diet to being an old-fashioned ingredient.
Trust the brand, not the ingredients
Today, Crisco has replaced cottonseed oil with palm, soybean and rapeseed oils. However, cottonseed oil is still one of the most widely consumed edible oils in the country. It's a routine ingredient in processed foods and common in restaurant deep fryers.
Crisco would never have become a juggernaut without its aggressive advertising campaigns that emphasized the purity and modernity of factory production and the reliability of the Crisco name. Under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which made it illegal to adulterate or mislabel food products and built consumer confidence, Crisco helped convince Americans they didn't need to understand the ingredients in processed foods, as long as this food came from a trusted brand.
In the decades after Crisco was launched, other companies followed suit, introducing products like Spam, Cheetos, and Froot Loops, with little or no mention of the ingredients.
Early packaging for Cheetos simply advertised the snack as "cheese-flavored puffs". Wikimedia Commons
After ingredient labeling became mandatory in the US in the late 1960s, the polysyllabic ingredients in many highly processed foods may have confused consumers. But for the most part they continued to eat.
So, if you don't find it strange eating foods whose ingredients you do not know or understand, you owe in part to Crisco.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Helen Zoe Veit does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and does not consult or receive funding from stocks. She has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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