When you ask a lay person about what is a primary dietary cause of heart disease in Indians, a common response points the finger at ghee in the diet. Before we discuss ghee in further detail, let's first discuss what ghee is since I have readers from many different ethnic backgrounds who may not be familiar with it.
Ghee is clarified butter made traditionally from cow or buffalo milk during a simmering process that removes milk proteins (casein and lactose) and water. The simmering process gives ghee a distinct flavor and a high-smoke point which prevents oxidative damage during cooking, which means preventing inflammation in the body.
Ghee is one of the original ancient health foods originating from the Indian science of Ayurveda. It is a versatile component of Indian culture used to cook, to heal and is used in many traditional Indian ceremonies and rituals.
I will first explain some of the science and controversies about ghee and then our dietician, Prerna Uppal, will share her experience and a simple recipe at the end of the post.
Despite ghee's rich tradition for thousands of years, it gained a maligned reputation when science and public policy started wrongfully linking saturated fat directly to heart disease risk. As you've learned from my prior posts, the quality of the saturated fat is critical and most studies linking saturated fat to heart disease involved polluted and highly inflammatory sources of fats in the diet such as those found in the large vats of industrially processed seed oils in most fast food restaurants. There is also a psychological fear of ghee due to its resemblance to heart attack causing plaques which I discussed in this post.
I was similarly influenced by my early training and when I started practicing medicine and started seeing an epidemic of heart disease in my South Asian patients, I also recommended banning ghee from the kitchen. This wasn't entirely bad advice since many of my patients were using unhealthier forms of ghee.
The so-called “ghee” sold in many Indian grocery stores and used in restaurants is not the medicinal ghee made from high quality dairy, but instead made from highly inflammatory vegetable oils which are partially hydrogenated.
This form of adulterated ghee is also referred to as “vanaspati” or “dalda.” Rather than heal and lower inflammation, these ghee impostors will do the exact opposite and raise the risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic health conditions.
Health Benefits of Ghee
Ghee from grass-fed dairy has healthy fats like CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). We discussed the health benefits of full-fat dairy for adults and kids in this post, which include lowering diabetes risk and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Ghee contains micronutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and it contains choline, a nutrient also found in egg yolks that supports liver and brain health.
Cooking nutrient dense vegetables with ghee will also allow you to extract more of these fat soluble vitamins from the vegetables. So you get these vitamins directly from ghee and indirectly through other foods cooked with ghee.
Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate are another component of high quality dairy that play a key role in nourishing our gut cells which maintains overall gut health and lowers inflammation and chronic disease risk. In fact the term “butter” is derived from butyrate.
Our patients who have allergies to milk proteins like casein and lactose usually tolerate ghee fine since those proteins are removed during the simmering process.
Ghee has a high smoke point of 485 degrees F, which means it does not create damaging oxidative byproducts which promote inflammation when heated below this temperature.
In essence, the natural processing of high quality dairy into ghee removes potential allergens while preserving precious nutrients, earning it the nickname, “liquid gold.”
Our Experience with Using Ghee in the Clinic
As long as our patients are improving their overall eating habits and lifestyle and using high quality, preferably home-made ghee, Prerna and I have not seen any adverse impact on lipid profiles or inflammatory markers in the clinic.
In fact, using ghee correctly as part of a balanced diet has helped provide more flavor, satiety and contributed to lowering inflammation and reversing many chronic health conditions as has been done for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. Our experience mirrors this.
We have been prescribing ghee in a sensible fashion to our patients for years, while closely watching their lipid and cardiovascular profiles. We can safely say that we have rarely witnessed any abnormal changes in these lab results from the addition of ghee to a nutritious diet. This study gives a nice comprehensive look at ghee and its effects on lipids and cardiovascular risk.
Like we've advised in our prior posts on eggs and full fat dairy, we recommend using ghee with moderation and with the periodic monitoring of your own lipids to make sure there are no adverse changes which in our experience are exceedingly rare.
Prerna's Tips and Experience with Ghee
I grew up on ghee. My mother used ghee to give “tarka” (seasoning) to everything from lentils to vegetables to rice dishes.
The ghee we used was always homemade and made from scratch. My mom would skim the cream off the full fat, grass-fed milk for a week or so, until she had an amount for a substantial yield. She then churned the cream until it turned into butter and would then cook the butter on low heat for approximately 30 minutes until it turned into ghee. It was a true labor of love!
I echo Dr.Ron's comments that ghee is an extremely healthy addition to our diets as long as it is sourced from good quality milk. Also, we can now side-step the laborious process of collecting the cream for days and churning it. Simply buy grass-fed butter and cook it slowly and you will be rewarded with a delicious and healthy fat with outstanding health benefits (see recipe below).
In case you are more inclined to purchase it, there are a few brands (Organic Valley, Purity Farms) of high quality ghee on the market which are quite comparable to the homemade variety.
Granted, ghee is a saturated fat. However, saturated fats contain stable saturated bonds in their chemical structure and therefore, they are less likely to form dangerous free radicals during cooking. Again, review this prior post which discusses the chemical stability of saturated fats.
I also want to add that when fats like ghee are removed from the diet, as is typically done with low-fat diets, our patients commonly replace these fats with more inflammatory and less satiating processed and refined carbohydrates.
In our highly insulin resistant population (prediabetes, diabetes, high triglycerides, etc.), this is a dangerous switch that worsens these very conditions.
Steering patients away from these starches and back towards ancient healthy fats in moderation like ghee and coconut oil makes meals more satisfying and curbs carbohydrate cravings.
Ayurveda has long touted the health benefits of ghee in cooking and has also used it for medicinal purposes. We know that poor/impaired digestion is the cause of many chronic degenerative diseases. Ghee is not only a healing agent but also plays a role in improving our digestive function and balancing our “doshas”, which is our personalized Ayurvedic make-up.
Prerna's Ghee Recipe
Ingredient: Grass-fed butter (salted or unsalted)
- Heat the butter in a saucepan
- Reduce heat when it starts to bubble
- Simmer for 20-30 minutes until it turns golden yellow and milk solids settle to the bottom of pan
- Pour through a few layers of cheesecloth into a jar
Ghee has a long shelf life and can be kept covered at room temperature for several weeks.