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Shortening: Good or Bad?

Shortening is a type of fat used in cooking and baking.

It is typically made from hydrogenated vegetable oil and has a
long history of use in American kitchens that dates back to the
early 1900s.

However, shortening has fallen out of favor during the past few
decades because of its high trans fat content. For this reason,
most food companies are reformulating their products to be
trans-fat-free.

So should you still avoid shortening? This article takes a look
at the research, explaining what shortening is and how it
affects your health.

What Is Shortening?

Lard

The term “shortening” technically refers to any type of
fat
that is solid at room temperature. This includes
butter, margarine and lard.

Shortening can be made from either animal fat or vegetable oil,
but shortening made from partially or fully hydrogenated
vegetable oil is more common nowadays.

Shortening is most commonly made from vegetable oils like
soybean, cottonseed or refined palm oil, which are naturally
liquid at room temperature.

However, the chemical structure of the oil is changed through a
process called hydrogenation. This causes the oils to become
more solid, creating a thick texture that makes shortening good
to use for specific types of cooking and baking.

It also allows shortening to be very shelf-stable and stored at
room temperature.

Because of shortening’s unique characteristics, it is most
commonly used in baking pastries and for frying. There are many
different brands, but Crisco is the most well-known brand in
the US.

Bottom Line: Shortening is a type of fat
used in baking and frying. The term now almost always refers
to shortening made from vegetable oil.

Why Do People Use Shortening?

Shortening is used for specific purposes in cooking and baking.

During normal mixing and baking, wheat flour’s gluten
strands stretch and form a matrix. This gives baked goods like
bread a chewy, stretchy texture.

But when a fat such as shortening is cut into flour before
baking, it coats the gluten strands, preventing them from
lengthening and forming a tough matrix.

It shortens the gluten and creates a tender, short, crumbly or
flaky product. This is where shortening gets its name, but all
types of solid fat can also serve this purpose.

However, vegetable shortening is cheaper and more shelf-stable
than other types of shortening like butter or lard. It’s also
higher in fat than butter, so it produces a softer, flakier and
more tender pastry.

Nevertheless, some people prefer butter because it has a richer
flavor and produces a chewier, crispier product. Therefore,
which fat is superior for baking really depends on the texture
and taste you prefer.

Shortening is traditionally used in pastries such as cookies,
pie crusts, cakes or frosting.

It’s also frequently used for frying because it has a high
melting point and is more heat-stable than oil. This results in
fewer undesirable compounds forming in the fat and also
produces a final product that’s less greasy.

Bottom Line: Shortening is used in baking to
give pastries a tender texture. Many people use shortening
because it’s cheaper, higher in fat and more stable than
other types of fat.

Nutrition Facts of Shortening

Unlike butter or margarine, which contain approximately 80%
fat, shortening is 100% fat.

Therefore, it is very high in calories
and contains neither carbs nor protein. It also contains very
few vitamins and minerals (1).

For example, a tablespoon (13 grams) of shortening may contain:

  • Calories: 113
  • Total fat: 12.7 grams
  • Unsaturated fat: 8.9 grams
  • Saturated fat: 3.2 grams
  • Trans fat: 1.7 grams
  • Vitamin K: 8% of the RDI

However, it is important to note that many newer formulations
of shortening are trans-fat-free. These shortenings replace
trans fats with slightly higher amounts of saturated and
unsaturated fats.

Bottom Line: Unlike some other types of fat,
shortening contains 100% fat. Therefore, it is very high in
calories and low in nutrients.

Shortening Can Contain Trans Fats

Spoon of Lard

Since the invention of hydrogenation, shortening has been made
from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Hydrogenation turns liquid vegetable oil into a solid by
bombarding the oil with hydrogen atoms. This changes the
chemical structure of the oil from mostly unsaturated to mostly
saturated.

Saturated
fats
have a straighter, flatter molecular structure.
Therefore, they pack together more tightly. When an oil is
fully hydrogenated, it becomes very hard.

When an oil is only partially hydrogenated, it is still
somewhat soft and has a creamy, spreadable texture. For this
reason, the superior texture of partially hydrogenated
vegetable oils makes them the ideal shortening.

Unfortunately, partial hydrogenation also creates artificial
trans
fats
, which have serious negative health effects.

Trans fats raise your risk of heart disease, death from heart
disease, heart attack and stroke. They also raise your “bad”
cholesterol levels, lower your “good” cholesterol and cause
inflammation and the hardening of your arteries (2, 3, 4, 5).

Trans fats can also make it hard for your cells to communicate,
impairing the functions of your nervous system and affecting
brain and psychological health (6).

For these reasons, since 2006 the FDA has required all food
labels
to list the trans fat content (3).

Consequently, most food companies have reformulated their
products to remove all or most trans fats. Most shortenings are
now advertised as being trans-fat-free.

However, the current labeling laws make it difficult to tell if
a food still contains trans fats. That’s because if a food
contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, it can
be listed as 0 grams.

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To find out if your shortening contains trans fats, read the
ingredients list. If it contains partially
hydrogenated vegetable oil, then it contains trans fats too.

Bottom Line: Shortening was traditionally
made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Partial
hydrogenation creates a smooth, spreadable texture, but also
produces harmful trans fats.

Shortening Is Highly Processed

In 2015, the FDA decided that trans fats are no longer
“generally recognized as safe” due to the health risks they
pose. Therefore, food companies have until mid-2018 to remove
all partially hydrogenated oils from their products (7).

The FDA’s decision, as well as the public’s increasing
awareness of the dangers of trans fats, has forced companies to
find alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils.

Most shortenings are already free of trans fats, and they are
now made with a combination of fully hydrogenated palm oil and
soybean oil.

When oils are fully hydrogenated, they are completely changed
from unsaturated fats to saturated fats, so no trans fats are
produced. Yet full hydrogenation results in a very hard fat,
which no longer has a soft, spreadable texture.

Therefore, fully hydrogenated oils are commonly blended with
liquid oil in a process called interesterification, which
results in a spreadable texture.

The lack of trans fats in newer recipes means that these
shortenings do not carry the same health risks as traditional
shortening that does contain trans fats.

However, the health effects of interesterified fats are still largely unknown.
There simply has not been enough research yet to know how these
fats affect heart and metabolic health in the long term
(7).

A few studies in rats have found that high levels of
interesterified fats have negative effects on blood lipids.
However, these effects have not been seen when these fats are
eaten in more normal amounts (8).

Only time and more research can tell how interesterified fats
truly affect health.

Nevertheless, shortening is still
highly processed
and is typically only used to make fried
foods or pastries that are high in added fat and sugar.

Therefore, while it’s okay to enjoy the occasional treat, it is
a good idea to limit your use of shortening overall.

Bottom Line: Most types of shortening have
been reformulated to be trans-fat-free. However, shortening
is still highly processed and the health effects of the new
methods are still unknown.

Alternatives to Shortening

In addition to limiting your intake of foods that contain
shortening, you can also replace shortening with other
alternatives in recipes.

Butter

Butter Curls

Butter is
probably the most popular alternative to shortening. Many
people actually prefer butter because of the rich flavor it
adds.

Some people are hesitant to use butter because it is naturally
high in saturated fat, containing about twice as much as
shortening.

In the past, health experts have claimed that eating saturated
fat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease (9).

However, several recent scientific reviews have not found that
link. There is also some evidence that the natural trans fats
found in dairy products may even have some benefits for
metabolic and heart health (4, 9, 10).

Therefore, butter is a suitable alternative to shortening in
most recipes. Just be aware that the water in butter may create
a slightly different texture than shortening would.

Clarified butter, which contains very little water, is also a
good alternative.

Palm or Coconut Oil Shortenings

A Jar of Coconut Oil and a Teaspoon

Coconut and unrefined palm oil are naturally high in saturated
fat, which makes them solid at room temperature.

This solid, spreadable texture means they are easy replacements
for shortening.

Many brands now sell alternative shortenings made from pure
palm or coconut oil, which can replace shortening at a 1:1
ratio.

Additionally, coconut oil may have some
health benefits
.

But these options are not without drawbacks. Coconut oil may
give foods a nutty or coconut flavor. And palm oil has come
under fire because harvesting it has negative effects on the
environment.

Other Plant Oils

Bottle of Sunflower Oil

Most plant oils are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated
fats, which causes them to be liquid at room temperature. So
they are only a good choice for recipes that call for melted
shortening.

Some evidence shows that replacing saturated fat in the diet
with unsaturated fat can reduce your risk of heart disease
(2).

However, some types of plant oils are also rich in omega-6
fatty acids, which most people already consume far too much of
(2).

Additionally, it’s important to make sure that the cooking
temperature does not exceed the smoke point of the oil you use.

When some oils become overheated, they produce harmful
compounds that have negative health effects.

Some plant oils are good choices for cooking, while others are
not. Check out this
article
for more information on which oils are the best for
cooking.

Bottom Line: Shortening can be replaced with
alternatives like butter, coconut oil, palm oil or other
healthy plant oils.

Should You Consume Shortening?

With the recent reformulation of many recipes, most shortenings
no longer carry the harmful health risks of trans fats.

However, they are still highly processed and the health effects
of the new methods for creating shortening are not yet known.

Additionally, shortening is high in calories and offers no
nutritional benefits.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of shortening
and use healthier alternatives when possible.

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