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While Americans know all about butter and—for better or worse—margarine, cooks in India have been using ghee in their kitchens and for Ayurveda therapies for eons. But now with the rise of fat-forward diets such as keto and bulletproof, this trendy form of butter is suddenly marketed everywhere as a “healthier, more natural” type of fat. These days, you’ll even find ghee in coffee creamers and popcorn.
The sales pitch behind ghee is that it’s a source of clean fat, easier to digest, helps relieve inflammation, and even ramps up your metabolism. Sounds awesome, right? But before you ditch butter and olive oil altogether, we sifted through the research, which leaves a lot to be desired, and tapped into expert advice to figure out if this golden fat lives up to its healthy rep.
What is Ghee?
Let’s start with the basics. Traditional butter is made up of milk fat, milk solids, and water. Ghee, on the other hand, is just the milk fat (clarified butter), with the water and milk solids removed by simmering butter over low heat for a period of time and then straining out any solids. What’s left behind is a golden liquid fat that is blessed with a highly appetizing, toasty caramelized flavor and enticing aroma.
In India, ghee may have been born out of necessity: Butter spoils fairly rapidly in the heat, while ghee keeps for a longer time and is shelf-stable. There, it’s used for cooking as well as adding a finishing touch of flavor to lentils and rice.
Because ghee is denser in fat, sports nutrition expert Kelly Jones, R.D., C.S.S.D., explains that it has a higher smoke point than butter so it better resists burning when used for high-heat cooking methods such as stir-frying and pan searing. The extra milk solids in butter can scorch at lower temperatures.
How Nutritious (or Not) is Ghee?
Overall, we found very little evidence to back up many of the health claims surrounding ghee. And what research is out there on topics such as ghee consumption and blood cholesterol levels has largely been conducted on animals such as rats and rabbits, which isn’t exactly the same as well-designed studies involving humans.
For all the rhapsodizing about ghee, there’s no getting around the reality that, like coconut oil and those buttery sticks, it’s high in saturated fat. In fact, ghee contains slightly more saturated fat calories than butter per serving: A tablespoon serving of ghee has roughly 9 grams of saturated fat while the same amount of butter has about 7 grams.
For reference, The American Heart Association recommends that we should get no more than 5 to 6 percent of our total daily calories from saturated fat, which is about 13 grams per day if following a 2,000 calorie diet. (Note: Many of us committed cyclists will need more daily calories than this to support training, and therefore, can have a higher saturated fat allowance.)
While evidence from the last decade highlights the fact that consuming moderate amounts of saturated fat isn’t akin to pouring superglue in your arteries, the preponderance of research still suggests that is it best to go easy on the stuff. Case in point: A review of randomized controlled studies in the Cochrane Database concluded that a reduction in saturated fat intake does indeed result in a drop in cardiovascular disease risk, and replacing these fats with polyunsaturated fats like those in canola oil, walnuts, flax, and fatty fish such as salmon and swordfish is, in contrast, heart protective. Further, Harvard researchers found that among nearly 130,000 people, those who ate more unsaturated fat (mono and poly) at the expense of saturated fat had a lower risk for heart conditions.
But it’s important to make note that when individuals cut saturated fat from their diet and simply replace it with refined carbohydrates like white flour, any benefits were canceled out. So while a healthy cyclist can wiggle some ghee into their diet and feel at ease with that, you shouldn’t rely on it (or butter!) too heavily for cooking and flavoring your foods. “But if someone is concerned about their saturated fat intake, it’s important to also consider other sources such as red meat and cheese and not just zero in on one source like ghee,” notes Jones.
Select ghee made from milk sourced from pasture-fed cows may have slightly lower amounts of saturated fat in favor of more desirable fats including omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid, a unique type of omega-6 fat. “While there is not abundant evidence that conjugated linoleic acid has enough benefits to be thought of as a functional nutrient, some studies have shown it may benefit athletic performance and metabolism through its anti-inflammatory effects and ability to reduce oxidative stress in the body,” says Jones. She adds that ghee naturally has slightly more conjugated linoleic acid than butter.
Self-appointed ghee experts like to tout the buttery import as being a good source of butyrate acid, a short-chain fatty acid that may play a role in digestive health and in reducing some inflammation in the body. However, we could find no nutritional analysis which supports that if you sizzle up your steak in ghee, that it will give you a notable dose of butyrate acid. Besides, butyrate is produced when bugs in your gut ferment dietary fiber in your colon, so a person need not load up on saturated fat-heavy ghee to get it.
Unfortunately, Jones is quick to point out that there’s no scientific evidence to back up the claim that spiking your coffee with ghee can rev your metabolism to nudge your body into serious fat-burning mode. Truth be told, eat calorie-dense ghee (about 135 calories in a tablespoon) too liberally, and nutrition experts like Jones stress that it likely won’t do your waistline any favors.
With that said, diets like keto that encourage the liberal intake of fat-dense foods such as ghee appear to help athletes become better “fat-adapted” in that they are able to burn up greater amounts of fat during exercise due to a reduced intake of carbohydrate. But it’s far from being proven that this translates into better endurance performance. Despite the social media hoopla, numerous cyclists and other athletes have not thrived when they trade in bread for bacon.
“While we don’t have a lot of research on how high-fat, low-carb diets impact athletes yet, we have decades of research supporting athletes high needs for carbohydrates as they are the major fuel source for high-intensity efforts,” Jones says. “I think it’s actually dangerous for endurance athletes to train and compete on such a high-fat and carb-restricted diet, with worries about mental state and making it harder to maintain proper hydration.”
How Does Ghee Compare to Butter or Margarine?
Since the milk solids are removed in the production of ghee, it contains lower levels of protein and some nutrients like bone-benefiting calcium than butter. But in the end, butter really should not be considered a good source of these either. Ghee does, however, deliver a healthy dose of vitamin A, “a fat-soluble nutrient that’s crucial for eye function and antioxidant functions in the body,” says Jones. “Ghee also supplies trace amounts of vitamins E, K, and B12.” So it’s hardly as nutrient-dense as a handful of almonds.
As a replacement for much-maligned margarine made with trans fats, clearly ghee is a better choice for sautéing your veggies and scrambled eggs. But now that this killer fat has been stripped away from most margarine supply, the advantage is less clear.
Made predominantly with vegetable oils, margarine has a better unsaturated-to-saturated ratio than ghee or butter. Still, many people including Jones see margarine as a highly processed item and prefer less altered options such as ghee and butter. “While I think it’s important to be flexible with our food decisions, I recommend the foods we eat on a regular basis are as close to nature as possible as those tend to be easier for the body to process.”
Some people who have trouble digesting dairy report that they find ghee easier on their stomachs than butter since the milk solids, which contain potential tummy troublers such as lactose and casein are removed. (It still has a touch of these though, so if you’re super sensitive, steer clear just to be safe.)
As for the rumor that ghee is a viable option for vegans, that argument doesn’t hold water. Even though the milk part of butter is mostly gone when making ghee, it is still made from an animal-sourced product, and dedicated vegans abstain from eating any food that hail from animals (even honey in some cases).
The Bottom Line
Though the nutrition and health claims are dubious, ghee is undeniably delicious (eggs rock when cooked in the stuff!) and can be part of an overall well-balanced diet when consumed in moderation, as long as you don’t mind shelling out some extra cash for it. Ghee probably won’t help you live long and prosper, but cooking your vegetables in the golden liquid might make you want to eat more of them, and that’s always a good thing.
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