Vegetable oil. The phrase implies something very specific, right? The unmistakable scent of fresh french fries, perhaps, or the crunch of a fried chicken wing.

But some vegetable oils are more versatile and widely used than they get credit for. Cottonseed oil is a useful example: Though it’s regulated as a food product by the FDA and used in countless commercial (and home) kitchens, it has a host of arguably more interesting applications that have nothing to do with cooking. Here’s a rundown of three surprising cottonseed oil uses.

  1. A Gentle, Durable Cosmetic Base

If you’re, ahem, of a certain age, you might remember hearing dire warnings about coconut oil’s link to high cholesterol, obesity, cardiovascular disease—you name it. Fast forward to more recent times and coconut oil can do no wrong. It’s a celebrity craze, touted by the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow for its age-defying, toxin-clearing abilities. Not coincidentally, it’s an increasingly popular ingredient in high-end cosmetics.

Since they don’t clog pores like animal fats, vegetable oils are actually surprisingly common in cosmetic products. Not all are as well-known as coconut oil, of course. Cottonseed oil is among the most common bases, thanks to a chemical profile that includes lots of low-density fats and an impressive ability to remain stable (and unseparated) for long periods. It’s also gentler on the skin than synthetic alternatives.

Cottonseed oil in cosmetics? Hey, you can learn a lot from reading those labels.

  1. A Sustainable Energy Source

Vegetable oil is often maligned as unhealthy. Nutritionists know that’s not the whole story—some types of fat, particularly the polyunsaturated varieties found in abundance in cottonseed oil, are good for you—but it’s certainly true that this class of cooking aid is high in total fat. That’s why it tastes so good.

The fat content of some vegetable oils, including cottonseed oil, could have implications for much more than your waistline. Cottonseed oil has a particularly high energy density, meaning it’s quite efficient as a fuel. Thanks to recent advances in diesel engine technology, it’s now possible to use it as a power source for millions of vehicles on the road today. More research and buy-in is needed to make this technology cheaper and more widely available, but it’s certainly encouraging in a world that’s hungry for sustainable energy.

  1. A Cheap Reserve of Tasty Protein

The world’s growing population needs cheap, sustainable food sources just as badly as it needs renewable energy. The solutions to our slow-motion food crisis will take many forms, but cottonseed oil and other under-used sources of cheap protein could make a key contribution. Though cotton is a wildly popular crop, farmers generally grow it for its signature fiber; its seeds are secondary, consigned to animal feed, or sold to oil producers.

Ongoing genetic research may change this. By selectively breeding cotton plants to produce even healthier, more protein-rich seeds, scientists could soon produce a type of cotton that’s nearly as prized for its seeds as for its fiber. Since cottonseeds are already relatively inexpensive, such an achievement could create a healthy, cost-effective source of protein for people in emerging economies.

The next time someone tells you that vegetable oil should stay in the fryer, tell them what you’ve just learned. After all, it would be a shame to shortchange a substance that makes people prettier, offers a clean, safe source of energy, and could make a significant difference for millions of undernourished global citizens.

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