Reader Samantha asks:
Why is shortening used over lard as a solid fat in commercially made products? Is it the cost?
Goodness gracious, Samantha, is that ever a great question. If only I had some of my former clients from McDonald’s corporate headquarters here to help me answer it. For as you may know, up until 1990 McDonald’s fried its legendary French fries in beef tallow (fat). That was the year when they finally succumbed to public pressure, whipped up by groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to change over to vegetable shortening, which was supposed to be better for us.
In those days the folks at CSPI were big boosters of trans fats. Ironically, these were the very same people who, some 15 years later, were threatening lawsuits against fast food chains like KFC for their use of vegetable shortening, causing a huge spike in rentals of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper.
In response big commodity food producers like Cargill shifted into high gear developing trans-free shortenings, which began hitting the industrial market in 2006. Problem solved. Though interestingly that was the very same year that the results of the Women’s Health Initiative were released. If you don’t remember what that is, it was the landmark $415 million, 50,000-subject study that found no connection between the intake of fats — any kinds of fats — and the incidence of maladies like heart disease or cancer. More on that here.
In the years since, as the results of the WHI have begun to slowly sink in among foodies and others, there’s been an increasing drumbeat to return to conventional fats — partly, to restore the legendary McDonald’s fry! However the big producers that supplied all that beef fat to McDonald’s (and others) are long since gone. That or they repurposed their infrastructure for other sorts of products. Thus with mass production gone, prices are up. So no one’s using beef fat on a commercial scale anymore. So yes, Samantha, the basic reason you don’t see it is cost.
It’s a similar state of affairs with pig fat (lard). Fifty years ago livestock breeders still raised so-called “lard pigs” to supply our society not just with meat, but with cooking fat. Those days are gone also. So, barring a big change in attitudes we won’t be raising much lard, much less consuming it.
All of which is not to say we can’t eventually get back to the days of using animal fats to fry with, it’ll just take a while. Public demand will have to grow to the point that bigger producers will perceive a profit in that business. Personally I don’t see it happening, but who knows? The pendulum is swinging back to some extent now, we’ll just have to see how far it goes. Someone once observed that the U.S. Defense Department can’t stop making battleships for a year, for if we did we wouldn’t be able to start again for twenty years. Who knew the same thing was true of animal-based frying fats? Thanks for the question, Samantha!