The pros and cons of fats and oils used in baking

Butter, oil and shortening are a baker’s greatest allies, since they aid and improve the taste, texture and shelf life of baked goods. BakerSA took a look at the different fats and oils used in the baking industry and the pros and cons of each, also taking into account consumers’ healthier eating requirements.



The debate around shortening versus butter, and butter versus oil rages on, but each has its place in baking. When it comes to baking cakes, butter is championed for the flavour it imparts. Both butter and shortening provide a lighter texture in cakes than vegetable oils, which also don’t render the same amount of flavour and lightness, but oil coats flour’s proteins better than butter, which explains why cakes baked with oil are moister.



Butter is considered best for all types of baking because its high fat content (80%) yields tenderness and flakiness. Margarine is not recommended for most baking since it has a greasy taste and as little as 35% fat, so it does not allow baked goods to become flaky – rather more cake-like – and does not spread as well as shortening.



Used in biscuits, cakes and pastry, shortening is just another term for fat – in fact, it is a semi-solid form of 100% fat. The term “shortening” is actually baker’s terminology: fat in a bakery item “shortens” (tenderises) the texture of the finished product.


Shortening was initially made from animal fats or fish oils, but most modern versions are made from oils derived from plants or seeds. 


Shortening moistens the baked product, imparts tenderness, contributes structure, incorporates air, and transfers heat. It makes fillings and icing creamier and, used in pastry, it provides a flaky texture. Furthermore, the use of shortening contributes to baked products remaining soft after cooling.


While shortening can replace butter and margarine in a recipe, it is important to bear in mind that shortening does not contain flavours or salt, and that recipes have to be adjusted to incorporate these. On the plus side, shortening does not need to be refrigerated and has a long shelf life if left unopened.


Butter and shortening substitute

Willowton Group’s WoodenSpoon is specially designed as a substitute for butter or yellow margarine in cakes, toppings, sauces, pastry, pie dough, biscuits and all other applications where butter or margarine is required. WoodenSpoon ingredients include palm oil (from the fruit and seed), and sunflower seed.


Fats as part of a healthy diet

Fat is essential as a concentrated source of energy, as an aid to the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, K and carotenoids, for healthy skin and hair, and for the production of some hormones.


Respected organisations worldwide, including The Heart and Stroke Foundation (HSF) South Africa, maintain that a healthy diet should include beneficial unsaturated fats from a variety of sources, eaten in moderation, while saturated and trans fat intake should be kept to a minimum.


Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of HSF, commented: “Globally there has been a shift from solely focusing on total fat intake to emphasising the importance of the quality or type of fat we consume. The evidence indicates that replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.”


Bad fats

Trans fats help to increase the shelf life of products, provide consistency and stability and give food a creamy taste. However, scientists across the globe have identified man-made trans fats as one of the major contributors to chronic lifestyle diseases, which include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers.


Foods that may contain man-made trans fats may include potato crisps; certain deep frying oils for fried chips; and baked goods and confectionery such as rusks, croissants, pies, crackers, cookies, doughnuts, muffins and chocolate coatings.


Trans fats are found naturally in small amounts in animal products like beef, pork, lamb, milk and butter, but the major source (and problem) is “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils containing trans fats.


Trans fats have a similar effect on the body as saturated fats, but while saturated fats can usually increase “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, trans fats increase “bad” (LDL) blood cholesterol and decrease “good” (HDL) blood cholesterol. They have also been found to increase triglyceride levels.


Good fats

Desirable fats in the diet are polyunsaturated fatty acids, which consist of multiple unsaturated fatty acids (including Omega-3 and Omega-6), together with monounsaturated fats. Vegetable oils, e.g. sunflower and canola oils, are good sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.


Trends in fats and oils

Moosa’s noted that a number of consumers were migrating to canola seed oil and olive oil blends because they contain Omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and are high in monounsaturated fat.


Sources: Baking Times – Hudson & Knight
Willowton Group






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