Butter is no longer considered the arch enemy of heart health, at least if you eat it in moderation. But what about that butter-based “superfood” that’s popping up on grocery shelves—ghee? It’s supposed to be good for your heart, bones and digestion, help you lose weight…and more. Is there anything to those claims?
Ghee is made from cows’ milk, buffalo milk or a combination of both. It’s pleasantly aromatic and has a slightly nutty flavor. To make ghee, unsalted butter is heated and the foam that forms can be skimmed off, just as for making clarified butter. But for ghee the remaining liquid—which is pure butterfat—is then simmered until it caramelizes. A creamy solid at room temperature, ghee liquefies easily at warmer temperatures and will keep unrefrigerated for months at room temperature if kept in a tightly closed container. While you don’t need to refrigerate ghee, it keeps longer if you do—up to a year. It will harden in the refrigerator but quickly softens once it warms up. Note: Moisture causes ghee to spoil, so be sure to always use a dry utensil to spoon it out of the jar.
Ghee has been used for centuries, particularly in traditional Indian cuisines for cooking and as a table spread and condiment. It has also been used for its health benefits—to boost heart and bone health…aid digestion…as an Ayurvedic massage oil…and as a base for herbal ointments to treat burns and rashes. Although ghee hasn’t been well-studied by nutrition scientists, some research does support its healthfulness. For example…
- Rats fed a diet high in ghee for 35 days had higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the good cholesterol) and lower triglycerides (blood fats) than rats fed a soybean diet or a diet low in linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is one of the beneficial nutrients in ghee.
- Other animal studies have found that ghee reduces total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (including very low density lipoprotein, the most dangerous kind) and triglycerides.
- A study in India found that men who ate higher amounts of ghee had significantly lower incidence of coronary heart disease.
- A lab study from Singapore found that cooking rice with ghee reduced its glycemic impact compared with cooking rice with vegetable oil…demonstrating that ghee might help “blood glucose and insulin concentrations, and improve colonic health.”
Why might ghee be healthy? It contains many of the same nutrients as butter, but in concentrated form—such as the essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E…vitamin K, which is especially important to bone health…and beneficial fatty acids including…
- Butyric acid, which aids digestion, supports colon health and is anti-inflammatory—helpful for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Caprylic acid, which has antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an antioxidant that is antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory and may help reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure and reduce tumors.
Because ghee is free of lactose- and casein-containing milk solids, people who are dairy sensitive might tolerate ghee better than they would butter.
This is not to say that you should swallow spoonfuls of ghee to boost your health! In small quantities, ghee can be a healthful replacement for other fats—but don’t go overboard. For one thing, ghee is high in calories and saturated fat—per tablespoon, 112 calories and 9 grams (g) of saturated fat for ghee, not that far from butter’s 102 calories and 7 g of saturated fat. However, because of ghee’s strong flavor, you may be satisfied with a smaller amount…and its richness can help you feel full.
Ghee is also great for cooking because it has a high smoke point, so you can use it to sauté at higher temperatures with less risk of it burning (and less risk of forming harmful free radicals from oxidation).
Bottom line: Ready to try ghee? You’ll find it in any grocery store with a good supply of Indian ingredients and in most health-food stores but also increasingly in semi-specialty markets (such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods) and even in regular supermarkets. Or you can find recipes online to make your own—it’s not difficult to do.