Lard is a kind of shortening, a shortening being any “butter, lard, or other fat, used to make pastry, bread, etc., short.” “Short” in this sense, as in shortbread and short pastry, means crumbly. So adding fat to pastry and bread makes the finished product more crumbly.
Traditionally Lard is defined as “the rendered fat of hogs, esp. the internal fat of the abdomen.” In practice, in recent years “lard” has been used to describe rendered animal fats used in cooking or baking, including beef fats. Rendered fat is fat which has been separated from the meat and processed, and is generally available as solid bars from the refrigerator section of grocery stores.
Shortening, meanwhile, has come to be synonymous in the consumer mind with the vegetable fat alternatives to lard available in the same section of the store.
While both products are 100% fat, and as such neither can claim to be health foods, there has been much debate about which of these products is healthier. First there was concern about the saturated fats in animal fat, and vegetable fats were touted as a healthier alternative.
Recently, however, there have been arguments that most of the fat in lard is monounsaturated, and that the saturated fat “has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol,” leading Anita Sorking to declare “lard has clearly won the health debate.”
This claim is because many of the vegetable fat alternatives have come under scrutiny lately due to the manufacturing processes employed to turn natural vegetable fats which are liquid at room temperature into fats that remain solid at room temperature.
This was frequently achieved by forcing water into the fat molecules, or hydrogenating them, thus the term hydrogenated fats. Unfortunately, some products were only partially hydrogenated, and these partially hydrogenated “trans fats” have recently been discovered to be the most harmful fat, much worse than saturated fats, and medical advice is to cut trans fats out of the diet altogether.
For a fuller explanation of the hydrogenation process and it’s health implications, read here.
So when choosing lard or vegetable shortening for baking, how do you avoid trans fats?
Well, if you are not vegetarian, you might be happy to know there are no trans fats in lard. If you are vegetarian, or just can’t bring yourself to cook with animal fats, then check the ingredients for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” If you see either of these, it will contain trans fats. Only if the vegetable oil is labelled as “fully hydrogenated” is it worth considering.
Also check the nutritional information panel, since trans fats are now required to be included in the US. You may also find some vegetable shortening which has been pressed rather than hydrogenated to achieve the required consistency.