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The beet armyworm, Spodoptera exigua (Hübner) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), is an important pest of numerous crops, and it causes economic damage in China. Use of secondary metabolic compounds in plants is an important method used to control this insect as a part of integrated pest management. In this study the growth, development, and food utilization of three successive generations of S. exigua fed on three cotton gossypol cultivars were examined. Significantly longer larval life-spans were observed in S. exigua fed on high gossypol cultivar M9101 compared with those fed on two low gossypol cultivars, ZMS13 and HZ401. The pupal weight of the first generation was significantly lower than that of the latter two generations fed on ZMS13 group. Significantly lower fecundity was observed in the second and third generations of S. exigua fed on M9101 compared with S. exigua fed on ZMS13 and HZ401. The efficiency of conversion was significantly higher in the first and third generations fed on HZ401 compared with those fed on ZMS13 and M9101. A significantly lower relative growth rate was observed in the three successive generations fed on M9101 compared with those fed on ZMS13 and HZ401. Cotton cultivars significantly affected the growth, development, and food utilization indices of S. exigua, except for frass and approximate digestibility. Development of S. exigua was significantly affected by relative consumption rate and efficiency of conversion of ingested food, but not by relative growth rate or approximate digestibility, suggesting that diet-utilization efficiency was different based on food quality and generation. Measuring the development and food utilization of S. exigua at the individual and population levels over more than one generation provided more meaningful predictions of long-term population dynamics.