A dollop of ghee can uplift anything. Grandma told us so, but then we were swept by a wave of (now-proven to be faulty) science that blamed this fragrant fat for soaring cholesterol levels, and we abandoned ghee for refined fats and oils. Now, the world seems to have discovered the goodness of ghee, and it has become part of health trends like keto diet and bullet coffee.
An ancient love
In ancient India, ghee was the chosen fat-lovingly fed to kids, used to flavour piping hot food, and when poured into the fire, a conduit into the other world. “Yatha jeevet, sukham jeevet, runam krutva, ghrutam pibet”– these lines from the Charvaka school of philosophy literally mean: “As long as man lives, he must live in peace and comfort and should consume ghee, even if it requires him taking a loan.”
In Indian homes for a few millennia, offering food cooked in ghee has meant showing your love, and admiration for another.
How to make ghee at home
Ghee is clarified butter. It is prepared by heating butter—which in turn is made by churning curd until the solid fat bubbles up to separate from the buttermilk. The butter is then heated. The clear fat that rises up is your fragrant pot of ghee.
In the Vedas, ghee has been considered one of the panch amruts (five nectars). The prayers of Rigveda and Atharvaveda ask the almighty to always keep ghee, one of the most nutritious foods, available in the kitchen of devotees. Additionally, the seventh chapter of Rigveda calls ghee “nirdosh food” or that which is flawless and boosts the body’s vigour and vitality. The scripture also refers to ghee the elixir for longevity.
Ayurveda has a POV on ghee
“Ayurveda considers ghee as a vital fat because it balances all the three doshas and has the capacity to increase one’s metabolism,” explains Niti Sheth, an Ayurvedic nutrition expert and therapist from Crawley, United Kingdom. “People with the Vata dosha type benefit from the sweet nature of ghee as they tend towards dryness in their physiology. And it also benefits the high heated body and mind composition of Pittas, because of its sweet and cooling property.”
Practical Yoga by Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre points out the healing properties of the golden fat—it improves complexion, mental function, eyes and reproductive tissues. It is considered to be a “satvik food” by Ayurveda—that which brings good health, peace and clarity. “It is used extensively in Ayurvedic therapies because of its ability to act as a yogavagi—a catalytic agent carrying the medicinal properties of the herbs that it’s mixed with, to all relevant tissues of the body,” points out Sheth.
Homemade ghee is healing
But it is the homemade ghee that is full of healing properties. Ayurveda strongly believes that the environment in which any food is prepared largely determines its properties and also how you feel after consuming the food. “With ghee, making it at home means you know where the butter came from and you make it in the pleasing environment of your home with an intention to heal yourself and your loved ones,” says Sheth.
But as with everything, ghee has its own contraindications. “People with Kapha constitution should be thrifty with consuming ghee as they tend towards slower metabolism and increased weight gain. The nourishing and kapha- increasing nature of ghee can do them more harm than good. It is also incompatible with equal quantities of honey,” she says.
Nutrition science weighs in
Ghee has healing properties and is easy to digest—so you can go guilt-free if consumed in moderation. It has butyric acid which reduces inflammation in the body and helps in building immunity. Dairy products are rich in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) that is known to be anti-carcinogenic and anti-diabetic, points out a paper published in Lipids in Health and Disease.
According to the nutrition data shared by the US Department of Agriculture in May 2016, about 100 grams of ghee contains 61.9 g of saturated fat and 256 mg of cholesterol. “According to the current fat guidelines for Indians, saturated fats should be less than 7% of the total fat intake. Avoid all processed/trans/saturated fat and increase consumption of plant foods to include 1-2 teaspoons of ghee in your diet,” pointed out senior nutritionist Dr Geeta Dharmatti at the 3rd International Diabetes Experts Conclave 2019.
The healthy way to eat ghee
So ghee is not anathema. But just how much is good and when are we crossing the good fat line? Taking a circumspect view of our lifestyles and food, Sheth says “As a general rule, I would recommend using ghee for tadkas for most people.''
Another research published in The Journal of Evolution of Medical and Dental Sciences found that curd ghee lowered the total cholesterol and increased the good cholesterol in their experimental groups.
Ghee helps in losing weight
Celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar, an avid promoter of “grandmother diet”, has an entire chapter dedicated to the fat-burning properties of ghee in her book Indian Superfoods. She calls the SCFA or short-chain fatty acids the top-performing fats that promote fat burning from stubborn areas of the body.
Should you consume ghee if you are overweight? Dharmatti says that if moderate amounts are consumed, ghee provides good satiety and is healthy. "However, have it with proteins for better outcomes, and not carbs. Which basically means, bid goodbye to fried puris or ghee on roti. It is best had with a bowl of dal with ghee ka tadka!”
Build better immunity with ghee
Ghee contains Vitamin A, E and K, thus boosting your immunity. “Ghee improves absorption and assimilation and nourishes the gross and subtle tissues of the body. It is great for improving memory and lubricates all the joints,” says Sheth.
Types of ghee—and what’s better
According to science, ghee made from curd is better than the version made from boiling cream. Dharmatti also points out that ghee prepared from set curd contains CLA while the one prepared from just cream does not. Research published in the Indian Journal of Dairy Science proves the point, stating that ghee prepared by the desi method (with dahi starter) has the highest CLA levels, and is higher in buffalo than cow ghee.
Is ghee good for frying?
According to a research paper published in the Public Library of Science (a peer-reviewed journal), desi ghee can be safely used for cooking/frying in the temperature range between 140-170 degrees celsius. (Desi ghee is actually just pure ghee—a moniker the dairy fat earned after the influx of Vanaspati or hydrogenated vegetable oils that have now been shown to increase chances of cardiovascular disease.)
Nevertheless, avoid deep frying in ghee as at higher temperatures, the essential compounds in it begin to deteriorate. But considering that the health benefits are better with protein, skip the carb-laden sweets and crispies deep fried in ghee.
As with most good foods, ghee is great in moderation. Go on, sprinkle a spoonful on your khichdi!