I remember the days of summer camp. I went to a Jewish camp where there were meat meals and dairy meals to keep in line with the kosher rules. What this meant was that the universal fat used in every single thing we ate was Crisco. I remember bowls of Crisco on the tables to smear on toast, and the blocks of Crisco we would schlep along on our canoe trips. By the end, these unchanging hunks of white fat would be coated in a sprinkling of twigs and leaf bits.
It's taken me this long to brave the truth about Crisco.
In my book UnDiet I wrote the following:
"These oils are highly processed and most commonly genetically modified, unless specifically labelled organic. Many of them, such as cottonseed and soy, carry loads of chemicals. The high heat processing destroys any nutrients that may naturally occur like vitamin E and omega-3 essential fatty acids. To make margarine the spreadable consistency people seem to dig, the oil must be hardened. This is done by hydrogenation or bubbling hydrogen through the vegetable oil at high temperature, a process that enables it to be solid at room temperature. This is the same property that makes it perfect as frosting on cakes. When the carbon bonds are saturated with hydrogen, the product is called a saturated fat or a hydrogenated oil.
"We've all seen the declaration on margarine tubs that it contains 'polyunsaturated oil.' However, the processing or hydrogenation removes the flexibility, or natural liquid state, of these oils; hence, it stays solid at room temperature and loses any polyunsaturated fat benefits. Because of this solidifying process, margarine usually contains some trans-fatty acids, no matter what the label says. These are bad kinds of fatty acids that can promote inflammation in the body."
Crisco is worse. You can spray it. You can pour it. You can spread it.
Crisco, first used to make candles, was invented in pre-civil war days by candle maker William Procter and his brother-from-another-mother, soap maker James Gamble (get it -- Procter & Gamble?)
The meat industry (bullies then, as they are today) controlled the prices of lard and tallow which were necessary to make soap and candles. As a result, prices were high and so Procter and Gamble took to acquiring cottonseed mills and with the help of a chemist, developed the process of hydrogenation -- turning liquid cottonseed oil into a thick, solid fat, much like lard. And so they marketed it as a replacement to lard. The name "Crisco" came from what they called "crystallized cottonseed oil."
P&G marketed Crisco as more digestible, cleaner and more economical than lard -- perhaps making them the first ever healthwashers, a similar strategy they later used to make us think the chemical cocktail of margarine is healthier than butter.
What is actually in Crisco today?
Since the original cottonseed cocktail, the formulation has changed to be able to throw a few healthwashing claims onto the canister. The cottonseed oil has been replaced with hydrogenated, genetically modified omega-6 rich soybean oil and fully hydrogenated palm oil (a very different substance than extra virgin, cold pressed palm or coconut oil).
This is where it gets confusing.
They call this product an "all-vegetable shortening." Soybeans and palm fruit (the oil is derived from the pulp of the fruit) are not vegetables. Incidentally, cottonseed oil also doesn't come from vegetables. Vegetables don't make oil. Corn is a grain. Soy is a grain. Olives are fruits. Coconuts are fruits. Flax and hemp? Seeds. Carrots and celery? Nope...no oil (though you can get oil from the seeds of carrots -- great for sunshine).
So then why use Crisco? To make pastries flaky, of course. This is a requirement of a happy life, right? What would we do without a flaky pie crust?
We likely wouldn't be abusing the planet to grow the crops needed to create these oils which includes deforesting sacred lands, displacing indigenous people, losing biodiversity and increasing air pollution with insane levels of carbon emissions.
Without flaky pie crusts, we also might be that little bit healthier.
Gram for gram, fat is fat -- whether it comes from coconuts, cows, olives, chemistry experiments, or chemical-laden, genetically modified soy and cotton crops.
There is no caloric difference, but there is a huge quality difference in terms of what you get for every calorie.
You can choose real, unprocessed fats and get nutritional benefit, increased vitamin D absorption, anti-viral and anti-bacterial benefits, vitamin K2 (from butter -- essential for dental health), improved nervous system function, improved hormone regulation, healthier skin and hair, and an overall improved mood and libido.
Or you can choose hydrogenated, processed, chemical-filled fats and take on a hearty serving of increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer with a side helping of flaky pie crust.