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

It’s 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 in the past few decades because of its high trans fat content. Now that trans fats are banned in the United States, however, shortenings have been reformulated to be free of these fats (1).

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?

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

Shortening can be made from either animal fat or vegetable oil, but most shortening available today is made from vegetable oils like soybean, cottonseed, or palm oil.

Because these vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, they must go through a unique manufacturing process called hydrogenation to become solid at room temperature (2).

Until recently, shortening contained partially hydrogenated oil — a type of trans fat.

However, the Food and Drug Administration completely banned trans fats in the United States as of January 2020 because they can disrupt cell membrane function, leading to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and nervous system dysfunction (1, 3).

Shortening is still made using hydrogenation, but the oils are fully hydrogenated rather than partially hydrogenated, so there are no trans fats present (2).

This hydrogenation process fully saturates the vegetable oil molecules with hydrogen ions until they have the characteristic firmness of saturated fats (like butter, lard, and coconut oil) at room temperature (2).

Shortening uses

Shortening is used for specific purposes in cooking and baking. You’ve probably heard of Crisco, which is a well-known brand of shortening that has been around since 1911.

Shortening and other solid fats are preferable to liquid oils in baking applications like cookies, pie crusts, and cakes to create a tender, flaky end product.

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. This results in a tender, crumbly, and flaky product (4).

This shortening of the gluten strands is how shortening got its name.

Although butter and lard can accomplish the same result, vegetable shortening is cheaper and more shelf-stable.

Until recently, it was also thought to be healthier because it contains less saturated fat than butter and lard. However, we now know that highly processed shortening offers no health advantages over butter or lard and may in fact be a less nutritious choice (5, 6).

Shortening is also not just for baking — it’s commonly used instead of oil or other types of fat for frying too.

Summary

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.

Shortening nutrition

Unlike butter and margarine, which contain approximately 80% fat, with the remainder being water, shortening is 100% fat (7, 8).

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

For example, a tablespoon (12 grams) of Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening contains (9):

  • Calories: 110
  • Total fat: 12 grams
  • Unsaturated fat: 3.5 grams
  • Saturated fat: 2.5 grams
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Carbs: 0 grams
Summary

Unlike some other types of fat, shortening contains 100% fat. Therefore, it’s very high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals.

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 (2).

The health effects of interesterified fats are still largely unknown. There simply hasn’t been enough research yet to know how these fats affect our health in the long term (10).

Unfortunately, though, recent rat studies on the effects of interesterified fats look fairly grim.

In one study, researchers found that these fats promoted inflammation, enlargement of the fat cells, and fatty liver disease in rats. Another study noted that interesterified fats in the diet promoted fat gain while impairing blood sugar control in rats (11, 12).

On the other hand, one review investigating the effects of interesterified fat consumption in humans noted no ill effects. However, more research in humans is needed so we can better understand the health effects of these fats (13).

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

Therefore, while it’s OK to enjoy an occasional treat containing shortening, it’s a good idea to limit your use of shortening overall.

Summary

Fully hydrogenated vegetable fats must be mixed with liquid fat to be spreadable. These interesterified fats may cause health problems. Shortening is highly processed and typically used only to make foods that are high in fat and refined carbs.

Alternatives to shortening

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

Butter

Butter is probably the most popular alternative to shortening. Many people actually prefer butter because of the rich flavor it adds. It’s also solid at room temperature, so it’s perfect for pie crusts, pastries, and cookies, which require solid fat.

Some people are hesitant to use butter because it’s naturally high in saturated fat. In the past, health experts claimed that eating saturated fat was linked to a higher risk of heart disease (14).

However, several recent scientific reviews have not found that link, with some evidence suggesting there is no link between saturated fat intake and heart disease (15, 16).

Still, since the information varies, you could follow the American Heart Association’s recommendation that only 5% to 6% of your daily calories come from saturated fat (17).

This means that if you consume about 2,200 calories daily, no more than 132 of them should be from saturated fat.

Butter is a suitable alternative to shortening in most recipes. Just be aware that the small amount of water in butter may result in a slightly different texture than shortening would.

Clarified butter, or ghee, which contains very little water, is also a good alternative (18).

Palm or coconut oil shortening

Coconut and unrefined palm oils are naturally high in saturated fat, so they are solid at room temperature. This solid, spreadable texture makes them easy replacements for shortening (19, 20).

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

Additionally, coconut oil may have some health benefits.

But these options aren’t 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 (21).

Other plant oils

Most plant oils are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are therefore liquid at room temperature — so they’re a good choice only in recipes that call for melted shortening.

In recipes like pie crusts, where you cut solid fat into flour, liquid oil won’t give you the same flaky result. In baking, using liquid oil in place of shortening may result in a product that’s overly firm and has an uneven grain (22).

Some research shows that replacing saturated fat in the diet with unsaturated fat may reduce your risk of heart disease (23).

Unfortunately, though, many vegetable oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which may contribute to inflammation in people who aren’t also getting enough omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like fatty fish, chia seeds, and flaxseed) (24).

Avocado oil, olive oil, and coconut oil are some of the best plant oils for cooking and baking.

Summary

You can replace shortening with alternatives like butter, coconut oil, palm oil, or other healthy plant oils.

Due to the recent ban on trans fats, shortening is now trans fat-free. However, shortening is still highly processed, and the interesterification process now used to create spreadable shortening may have its own set of health risks.

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 — like butter, olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil.