Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Is Cooking Shortening Bad For You?

Also Known As: Vegetable shortening



Short answer

Cooking shortening, especially those containing trans fats, can be bad for your cardiovascular health, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. While modern formulations may be trans fat-free, they're often high in saturated fats, also a concern if consumed in excess. It's advisable to limit intake and seek healthier alternatives like olive or avocado oil where possible.



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Long answer

Composition of Cooking Shortening: Saturated and Trans Fats

Cooking shortening, which is solid at room temperature, has been a staple in baking and frying for generations. But what exactly is in this ingredient, and how can it affect your health? Primarily, shortening is composed of fats, but not all fats are created equal. Let's delve into the types of fats found in cooking shortening — specifically saturated and trans fats — to better understand their roles and health implications.

Saturated Fats:

Saturated fats are a type of dietary fat that are typically found in animal products, as well as some plant-based sources. Cooking shortening often contains saturated fats, which can be derived from:

  • Palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Dairy products (in the case of lard and butter blends)

While saturated fats are essential in moderate amounts for bodily functions, excessive consumption can be a health concern. Studies have shown a correlation between high intake of saturated fats and an increased risk of heart disease due to their ability to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood, often referred to as "bad" cholesterol.

According to the American Heart Association, it is advisable to limit saturated fat intake to less than 6% of total daily calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that equates to around 13 grams of saturated fats.

Trans Fats:

Another cohort of fats present in traditional cooking shortenings are trans fats. There are two main types:

  • Natural trans fats: Occurring in small quantities in meat and dairy from ruminant animals.
  • Artificial trans fats (or partially hydrogenated oils): Industrially produced by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to solidify them, extending shelf life.

Artificial trans fats are of particular concern in the health community. The ingestion of these fats has been strongly linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, as they not only increase LDL cholesterol but also reduce levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, known as "good" cholesterol.

This link has led to significant food policy regulations, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) for use in human food. In response, many manufacturers have reformulated their cooking shortenings to be free of artificial trans fats.

When shopping for or using cooking shortening in your culinary creations, it's vital to check the product label for its fat composition. Modern shortening formulations may use fully hydrogenated oils instead, which do not contain trans fats. However, they still contribute to the total amount of saturated fat, which should be consumed in moderation.

The impact of saturated and trans fats on health is clear. While we all need a certain amount of dietary fat for a balanced diet and proper bodily function, the types of fat we consume matter greatly. It's important to read labels carefully and make informed choices in our diets to ensure we're not inadvertently increasing our health risks through the foods we eat. For the love of good food and good health, let's put our heart into understanding these fats!

The Link Between Shortening and Cardiovascular Health

Shortening, which is a type of fat used in cooking and baking, has stirred quite a bit of conversation regarding its impact on cardiovascular health. To understand the link, it's important to dive into the types of fats present in shortening and how they interact with our bodies.

Traditionally, shortening is made from partially hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats. Trans fats are known to increase levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and decrease "good" HDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. An imbalance in these cholesterol levels can lead to a buildup of plaques in the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis.

The American Heart Association has long advocated for minimizing intake of trans fats to reduce the risk of heart disease. Studies have shown a strong correlation between consumption of trans fats and an increased risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the BMJ in 2015 found that higher consumption of trans fats was associated with a 21% increase in the risk of cardiovascular mortality.

In more recent formulations, food manufacturers have moved away from partially hydrogenated oils to meet FDA regulations and public health recommendations. Many shortenings now use blends of fully hydrogenated oils and liquid vegetable oils, creating a product that is trans fat-free. Fully hydrogenated oils produce saturated fats rather than trans fats, which, while still a concern for heart health, are not viewed as negatively as trans fats.

Saturated fats can also affect cholesterol levels. Current dietary guidelines advise limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total daily calories to help maintain heart health. The switch from trans fats to saturated fats in shortening may represent a lesser of two evils, but it is still far from ideal for those monitoring their cardiovascular risk profile.

The impacts of these changes on long-term heart health are not yet completely understood, and research continues to evolve. With emerging studies, the narrative around fats and their role in our diets becomes more complex. Alternative shortenings, such as those made from palm oil, still carry implications for heart health, and the production of such oils can have environmental and ethical concerns.

While moderation is key, it's also crucial for consumers to stay informed and opt for healthier fats where possible, such as olive oil or avocado oil, which contain more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats known to be heart-healthier options.

In conclusion, when considering shortening in your diet, it's essential to be cognizant of its potential impacts on cardiovascular health. Read labels closely to understand what types of fats are in your shortening, and consider whether there might be healthier alternatives for your cooking and baking needs.

Shortening in Baking: Is There Room for Moderation?

When it comes to baking, shortening is a common ingredient prized for its ability to create tender pastries and flaky pie crusts. However, the health impact of shortening is a topic of concern for many health-conscious individuals. While the debate on its health implications is extensive, the key lies in understanding the composition of shortening and practicing moderation.

Traditionally, shortening is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils. This process converts unsaturated fats into a semi-solid form at room temperature but also creates trans fats, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges as unsafe to consume in any amount because they are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. However, in recent years, many brands have reformulated their products to be trans-fat-free, often using fully hydrogenated oils combined with liquid oils in a process called interesterification, which does not result in trans fats.

While trans-fat-free shortening may seem like a healthier option, it's still important to note the high calorie and saturated fat content which can contribute to other health issues if consumed excessively. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6% of total daily calories for optimal heart health.

Here's how you can practice moderation when using shortening in baking:

  • Measure Precisely: Use the exact amount of shortening called for in a recipe. Adding more can increase the saturated fat content unnecessarily.
  • Seek Alternatives: Consider substituting part of the shortening with healthier fats like unsweetened applesauce, Greek yogurt, or pureed avocado in certain recipes. This can reduce saturated fat and add nutrients.
  • Indulge Occasionally: Reserve shortening-based baked goods for special occasions rather than everyday consumption.
  • Portion Control: Enjoy baked goods in small portions to keep your overall intake of fats in check.

In baking, while shortening can play a crucial role in texture and taste, it is equally important to take into account its dietary impact. Striking a balance through moderation and exploring alternative ingredients can ensure your baking indulgences align with a health-conscious lifestyle.

Experts such as registered dietitians and culinary professionals often suggest that if you choose to use shortening, do so with an awareness of the overall context of your diet. For those who bake frequently or have health conditions affected by fat intake, it is especially critical to be mindful of how shortening is incorporated into recipes.

Research studies, such as those examining the effects of saturated fat on cardiovascular health, emphasize the importance of limiting foods high in this type of fat. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also echo this sentiment, encouraging the use of oils and fats that are lower in saturated fats and higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

The occasional use of shortening in baking does not have to be wholly vilified, as long as we are cognizant of consumption patterns and alternatives available. By being proactive in our approach to incorporating shortening, we can enjoy the delights of baking while still prioritizing our health and well-being.

Alternative Fats and Healthier Substitutes for Shortening

Shortening, traditionally made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, is often high in trans fats, which have been associated with numerous health issues, including heart disease and inflammation. The drive for healthier cuisine has led many to seek out substitutes for shortening in their cooking and baking. These alternatives not only offer a more favorable nutrient profile but also cater to different dietary needs and can sometimes enhance the flavor profile of your dishes.

But, what are these healthier alternatives, and how do they stack up nutritionally? Let's start our adventure by considering a few popular options:

  • Butter: A natural and flavorful alternative, butter is rich in fat-soluble vitamins and contains no trans fats. However, it's higher in saturated fats. If you're going for butter, choose grass-fed varieties for a better nutrient composition.
  • Coconut Oil: Often lauded for its medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), coconut oil has been said to offer a range of health benefits. While research is mixed on its impacts on heart health due to its saturated fat content, it's a delicious, vegan-friendly choice with a similar texture to shortening.
  • Olive Oil: For savory dishes, extra-virgin olive oil is a heart-healthy option loaded with monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. The flavor is more pronounced but can add a delightful essence to your culinary creations.
  • Avocado Oil: With a high smoke point and monounsaturated fats, avocado oil is excellent for cooking and baking. Plus, it contains nutrients such as vitamin E and oleic acid, beneficial for overall health.
  • Applesauce: A surprisingly effective fat replacement in baking, unsweetened applesauce can provide moisture and sweetness while slashing calories and fat content.
  • Pureed Fruits: Similar to applesauce, pureed fruits like bananas or prunes can replace shortening in baking recipes, offering fiber and nutrients while maintaining a tender crumb.

It's important to consider that while seeking healthier options, one should also take into account the suitability for the recipe at hand. For instance, while olive oil is fantastically healthy, it might not be the best option for your vanilla cake recipe due to its strong taste. Similarly, coconut oil's subtle sweetness makes it great for pastries but possibly not the right choice for heartier breads.

When choosing a substitute, it’s beneficial to consider the specific health benefits each option brings. To help illustrate this, let's look at a comparison table:

Substitute Type of Fat Health Benefits Best Used For
Butter Saturated Vitamins A, D, E; butyrate Baking, frying
Coconut Oil Saturated MCTs; lauric acid Baking, sautéing
Olive Oil Monounsaturated Polyphenols; oleic acid Dressings, sautéing, roasting
Avocado Oil Monounsaturated Vitamin E; oleic acid Frying, baking, dressings
Applesauce None (fat-free) Fiber; vitamin C Baking
Pureed Fruits None (fat-free) Varies by fruit: fiber, vitamins Baking

Incorporating these substitutes into your cooking can not only add nutritional value but can also introduce new and exciting flavors. Furthermore, this switch to healthier fats aligns with the larger movement of mindful eating, focusing on whole foods and natural ingredients that support overall well-being. Remember, though, that moderation is key; while these options are healthier, they still contain calories and should be used in a balanced manner within one's diet.

Adventurously explore these alternatives in your kitchen—but don't stop at individual ingredients. Look at them through the lens of your entire diet. Diverse and balanced is the way to go, and even the healthiest of fats should find their place alongside an array of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes in your culinary escapades.

Frequently asked questions

While moderation is essential, if you're on a low-cholesterol diet, it's advisable to minimize or avoid shortening due to its high saturated fat content, which can influence blood cholesterol levels. Instead, consider using unsaturated fat alternatives like olive oil, avocado oil, or nut butters that have a more favorable impact on heart health.

The consumption of trans fats, previously found in many shortenings, has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as other metabolic issues. Even with trans-fat-free shortenings, watching your saturated fat intake is crucial. Saturated fats may contribute to insulin resistance, so using shortening sparingly and opting for healthier fats can be beneficial for diabetes risk reduction.

Shortening and lard both consist of a high level of saturated fats, but lard has a small amount of trans fats naturally occurring from animal fats. In terms of health, using these fats in moderation is key; however, lard may offer slightly more monounsaturated fats compared to shortening, which can be a healthier option for heart health.

To maintain the quality of shortening, keep it in a cool, dark place to prevent oxidation and rancidity. If opened, ensure it is tightly sealed or transferred to an airtight container. While not required, refrigerating may further extend its shelf life, especially in warmer climates.

Ask a question about Cooking Shortening and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • raised ldl cholesterol
  • decreased hdl cholesterol

Possible long-term side effects

  • increased risk of heart disease
  • increased risk of stroke
  • increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • cardiovascular mortality
  • atherosclerosis

Commonly found in

  • baking
  • frying

Ingredients to be aware of

Healthier alternatives

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Organic Palm Shortening

  • Non-Hydrogenated
  • Pure and Natural
  • Organic Quality
  • Sustainably Certified
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 02-20-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 02-20-2024

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