Discussing health effects of ghee is like walking on a double- edged sword. This humble traditional Indian product has been dragged into many controversies. There are dichotomous views about its use without any clear-cut answers. Most recent researches have shown that ghee consumption is not linked to heart diseases and in fact helps maintain a better lipid profile than most of the healthy vegetable oils. Love it or hate it, Indians can’t totally stay away from it.
Ghee is prepared in most households in India using milk, cow’s, buffalo or sometimes mixed. Cream obtained from milk is heated (over 100°C) for a prolonged time allowing moisture to be removed from the cream and separation of the milk solids. What remains is the fat portion obtained as a clear yellow liquid which solidifies at low temperatures.
India’s rich traditional knowledge of medicine known as Ayurveda has always supported and encouraged use of ghee for cooking and all kinds of holy purposes as well. Ghee has several health benefits according to Ayurveda,
- Increased life span
- Improved digestion by stimulating the agni or digestive fire
- Improved absorption and assimilation of nutrients
- Enhances memory and cognition
- Provides lubrication to joints preventing aches and fractures
- External use in skin allergies
Beneficial effects of ghee
Conjugated Linoleic Acid : Milk fat contains avg 4.5mg CLA/ g making it the richest natural dietary source of CLA. CLA has been shown to protect against cancers and other inflammatory conditions such as diabetes. It is also used by sportsmen since it plays a role in preventing fat accumulation. CLA has also shown to have antidiabetic effect by improving glucose homeostasis.
Increases good cholesterol : Ghee in moderation (10% ) leads to increase in the HDL cholesterol levels. Indians typically have low HDL levels and normal levels are protective against heart diseases. Ghee causes excretion of dietary cholesterol and bile acids and therefore may not increase serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol
High saturated fat content : Ghee contains upto 65% saturated fat. Theoretically, this amount is higher than that present in the conventional vegetable oils including rice bran, mustard seed, peanut oil ,etc which are considered very healthy. But , ghee has shown to improve lipid parameters more effectively than mustard seed oil and peanut oil despite its high saturated fat content.
It is because ghee contains the short chain saturated fatty acids like butyric and caproic acid present in grass-fed dairy products and not the harmful long-chain saturated fatty acids.
Cholesterol oxides– The application of high heat during preparation of ghee leads to formation of cholesterol oxides. These oxides are formed in ghee due to prolonged heating time and are absent in butter. Oxidized cholesterol blocks the arteries increasing the chances of stroke.
But this was assumed to be the possible cause for heart attacks in Indian immigrant population consuming ghee but more recent studies have negated this claim
Word of caution
Vegetable ghee – Ghee is sometimes prepared using vegetable oils and is often also called vanaspati or dalda. This type of ghee is rich in the deadly trans fatty acids and may be the cause for increased incidence of coronary artery disease among Asian Indians. Dalda ghee also causes insulin resistance, brain damage and psychological stress. More recently, there is increased awareness among consumers and they are avoiding use of dalda. This is the cheaper version of ghee mostly used in commercially processed foods and sweet shops.
Moderation- As with any food, moderation is important. All the studies showing beneficial effects of ghee indicate use within the prescribed allowance for fats. It is a healthy substitution for butter but not to be used in addition to it. We still recommend that you use not more than 500 ml of fat including ghee, oils, butter, etc in a month .
Certain foods need to be consumed with ghee to improve their digestion . For e.g. Natives from Rajasthan use lot of ghee for their dal, batti, etc because it helps in digesting them efficiently. Khichdi and dalia require fairly good amounts of ghee to enable easy digestion. Also, ghee improves absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D E and K, hence addition of ghee to vegetable soups, pumpkin curries, carrot halwa helps to enhance absorption of these nutrients.
One can easily enjoy the goodness of ghee , especially in traditional preparations that mandate its use. Ghee definitely adds lots of nutritional value to the food in addition to rich soothing taste and flavour