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.
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.
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.
Unlike butter or margarine, which contain approximately 80% fat, shortening is 100% fat.
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.
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 (, , , ).
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 ().
For these reasons, since 2006 the FDA has required all food labels to list the trans fat content ().
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.
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.
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 ().
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 ().
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 ().
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.
In addition to limiting your intake of foods that contain shortening, you can also replace shortening with other alternatives in recipes.
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 ().
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 (, , ).
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
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
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 ().
However, some types of plant oils are also rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which most people already consume far too much of ().
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.
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.