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By Alice Abler
In the last few decades, the fallacy that fat is bad has been inculcated into our collective psyche. With this “lipid hypothesis” came the idea that eating cholesterol-laden foods results in heart disease and an early death. Foods with saturated animal fat, like butter and ghee, were vilified. We were told to use hydrogenated vegetable oils instead of these nutrient-dense fats.
Finally, mainstream health experts are realizing that these were mistaken ideas, and the low-fat myth is slowly losing ground. We are beginning to understand the important role of cholesterol in our bodies and are recognizing that we actually need specific fats for brain, hormonal, and general health. Yet certain stigmas remain.
One animal fat in particular – ghee – is still looked upon with suspicion by some who are unsure of its role in attaining optimal health. But why? And, what is ghee?
Clarified butter . . . Or ghee?
Ghee is similar to clarified butter in that it is heated to separate the milk solids from the butterfat. Ghee, however, is cooked longer, until it attains a nutty, sweet scent and flavor. It has been the preferred cooking fat in South Asian cultures for thousands of years.
In 1987, a study on this subject seemed to indicate that ghee was responsible for an increase in incidences of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease among Asian Indians. Its high saturated fat and cholesterol content, along with its presumed cholesterol oxidation products (COPs), were fingered as the culprits, and this study has been cited as a reason for not eating ghee.
Although these ideas seemed to make sense in light of the anti-animal fat dogma popular at the time, it’s important to review the issues considering our current knowledge about healthy fat intake. So what is the truth about ghee – is it healthful or not?
Origins of high-vitamin btter oil
In the 1930s, Dr. Weston A. Price determined there was a special substance in butter that helps the body assimilate minerals (specifically calcium). He called it “activator-x” and found that it and various vitamins were more concentrated when high-vitamin butter was heated and clarified. In his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, available via PPNF's online store, Price describes the making of high-vitamin butter oil (HVBO): “I have found in these studies that, in the control of dental caries, while the consumption of whole butter is an aid in mineral metabolism, greater potency may be obtained by melting a high vitamin butter and allowing it to crystallize for twenty-four hours at a temperature of about 70 degrees[F]. It is then centrifuged, and, under the process, it separates into an oil that is limpid at that temperature, with a solid crystalline layer below. This oil is much higher in the activating factor than the whole butter. It is this substance that I shall refer to in this communication, unless otherwise explained, as a source of activator X.”
If Price had been familiar with ghee, he would have understood that taking clarified butter and cooking it a bit longer at high temperatures before straining the solids would have resulted in a healthful traditional fat. Although Price wrote about the health benefits of butter and its offspring, HVBO, India was not a destination in his travels, nor did he ever mention the delicious unctuousness of ghee in his writings.
Price often prescribed HVBO as a nutritional supplement for patients and wrote of positive outcomes. What, then, can we make of the negative comments about ghee, which is also traditionally derived from butter?
Trans fats and faux ghee
Comparing the ghee-vilifying 1987 study with more current research shows that the levels of COP in ghee appeared to be overestimated, and the reasons for the increased cardiovascular disease were likely related to other factors. (Gupta). In addition, ongoing research about COPs and their effects on health is inconclusive. Therefore, anti-ghee studies may reflect the sad fact that much of the ghee consumed by the South Asian population today is no longer the traditional, butter-derived ghee, but a poor imitation: “vegetable” (vanaspati) ghee, a cheap substitute that was introduced in the 1960s. This product is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are full of trans fats and are now known to be dangerous to our health.
A nutritional powerhouse
Other studies have shown that real ghee, aka anhydrous milk fat, used for millennia as both food and medicine, is actually beneficial. A study of coronary heart disease (CHD) in Indian men who consumed more than one kilogram of ghee per month as compared to men who consumed less than 1 kilogram of ghee per month showed surprising results: “There was significantly lower prevalence of CHD in men who consumed >  kg ghee per month."
Another of many studies on the subject, this one from 2010, attempts to set the record straight:
“Research findings in the literature support the beneficial effects of ghee outlined in the ancient Ayurvedic texts and the therapeutic use of ghee for thousands of years in the Ayurvedic system of medicine.”
So is ghee a healthy cooking fat? Absolutely! With its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vitamins A, D, E, and K (vitamin K2 is believed to be a component of the activator X first identified by Dr. Price), organic ghee from pastured cows is a nutritional powerhouse. Replacing less healthful vegetable oils and fats in your cooking with ghee is a very good (and delicious!) idea.
- Fats and Cholesterol. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats-full-story/#cholesterol.
- Jacobson MS. Cholesterol oxides in Indian ghee: Possible cause of unexplained high risk of atherosclerosis in Indian immigrant populations. Lancet (1987) 2:656–8. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2887943
- Sylwia Orczewska-Dudek, Dorota Bederska-Łojewska, Marek Pieszka, and Mariusz Pietras. Cholesterol and lipid peroxides in animal products and health implications – a review. Annals of Animal Science (2012). doi: 10.2478/v10220-012-0003-9.
- Kumar, N. and Singhal, O. P. (1992), Effect of processing conditions on the oxidation of cholesterol in ghee. J Sci Food Agric (1992). 58: 267–273. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jsfa.2740580216/abstract
- Sharma, H. Zhang, X. and Dwivedi, C. The effect of ghee (clarified butter) on serum lipid levels and microsomal lipid peroxidation. AYU. (2010). 31(2): 134–140. doi: 10.4103/0974-8520.72361 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215354/
- Gupta, R. and Prakash, H. Association of dietary ghee intake with coronary heart disease and risk factor prevalence in rural males. J Indian Med Assoc. (1997). 95(3): 67-9, 83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9212571
- Price, W.A, DDS. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. 21st printing. United States of America. Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation. 1939 (2012).