Hydrogenated vegetable shortening is semi-solid fat used for cooking and baking. Famous brands include Crisco in the United States and Cookeen in the United Kingdom. It has been criticized for high levels of trans fats, which have been linked to coronary heart disease and other health problems.
Hydrogenation was discovered in the late 19th century when chemists found that they could add hydrogen to unsaturated fats by passing hydrogen gas through vegetable oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst. Hydrogenated shortening became commercially available in 1911 with the introduction of Crisco.
Hydrogenated vegetable shortening is made from a variety of oils, including cottonseed oil, corn oil and soybean oil. It is grayish-white, tacky to the touch and semi-solid at room temperature.
Hydrogenated vegetable shortening is used as substitute for fats from animal sources, such as lard or butter. Hydrogenated shortening is popular because it doesn't spoil as easily as liquid oils, can withstand repeated reheating and is easier to transport.
However, the hydrogenation process creates trans fats, which have been linked to increased cholesterol levels and increased risk for coronary heart disease. As Alex Richardson of Oxford University's department of physiology told the Guardian, "They appear more dangerous than saturated fat; they have no nutritional value; they are an artificial, toxic fat that we don't need."
In the United States, the FDA requires the amount of trans fats to be included on food labels. Some jurisdictions, such as California and New York City, have adopted legislation to phase them out entirely. As the Harvard School of Public Health points out, you can regulate your intake of trans fat on your own by choosing liquid vegetable oil, avoiding commercial baked goods, and avoiding deep fried foods.
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