Ghee, also known as ‘the royal oil,’ begins as butter and is rendered dairy-free through the cooking process when the lactose, salt, impurities, whey, and casein fall to the bottom as sediment.
Benefits of Ghee
Because ghee is treated with low heat, usually under 100 degrees, it retains more nutrients than standard clarified butter. Beyond spiritual and medicinal properties, ghee is also believed to be a healthier alternative to standard butter. Here are just a few of the amazing benefits of ghee.
- Excellent for digestion
- Kindles the digestive fire (agni) without aggravating the fire element in the body ( pitta)
- Improves enzymatic function, assimilation, nourishment, and elimination
- Improves memory
- Prevents plasma and blood congestion
- Improves circulation
- Strengthens the brain and kidneys
- Nourishes all the tissues of the body (plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, nervous tissue/marrow, and reproductive tissue)
- Increases purity (sattva)
- Promotes fertility
- Encourages the flow of breast milk
- Improves ojas (life-sap, immunity, strength)
- Improves vision and the voice
- Enhances proper liver function
- Lubricates connective tissue
The Effects of Ghee on the Doshas
The properties of ghee also make it an excellent pacifier of aggravated air/space elements (vata) and fire (pitta) doshas. For example, ghee aids in eliminating waste products because it has both a laxative and diuretic effect on the body.
Its oily nature helps to ensure the downward flow of energy for elimination, keeps the intestines lubricated, alleviates hardness in bowels, and reduces flatulence and bloating.
- Promotes the healing of cuts, burns, eczema, and rashes
- Provides a soothing and cooling effect in the digestive tract, helping to offset the irritant effects of hot spices/chilies.
Ghee and Cooking
Ayurvedic recipes use ingredients that work well together. Adding ghee to incompatible substances can aid in mitigating the negative effects that incompatible substances would have.
- Helps eliminate and neutralize toxins such as bacterial contamination.
- Tolerates heat well. It has a smoke point of 465 degrees (higher than butter or olive oil), making it the best oil for cooking.
- Has an absorption rate (digestibility coefficient) of 96%, the highest of all oils and fats. This justifies its high standing in both Ayurvedic recipes and medicinal formulations where the digestion, absorption, and delivery of other substances are crucial.
Ghee and Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
In this age of “fatphobia,” Ayurveda’s views can appear contradictory, but ghee has been used for millennia in diets without any reported adverse effects on health.
One must scrutinize ghee through the modern scientific lens to look for the rationale for its recommendation from birth to death. All fats, especially saturated fats, have been widely vilified by modern health authorities. This can be traced back to the Lipid Hypothesis of the 1950s, which stated that heart disease was due to high intakes of saturated fats. It suggested that favoring polyunsaturated fats would improve health, though growing evidence suggests the Lipid Hypothesis was wrong.
Read the full abstract of the Lipid Hypothesis of the 1950s.
Most of the earlier studies focused on cholesterol levels as an indicator of CVD risk, but recent studies indicate that the more specific culprit is oxidized low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), which leads to atherosclerosis.
“Most researchers today consider that a high intake of saturated fat and elevated LDL cholesterol is the most important causes of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. The lipid hypothesis has dominated cardiovascular research and prevention for almost half a century, although the number of contradictory studies may exceed those that are supportive. The harmful influence of a campaign that ignores much of the science extends to medical research, health care, food production, and human life. There is an urgent need to draw attention to the most striking contradictions, many of which may be unknown to most doctors and researchers.”
In addition to the issue of whether ghee contains harmful types of cholesterol or not, its fatty acid content is also important. Its saturated fat is primarily (89%) short-chain fatty acids, compared with longer chains in other animal fats, such as beef fat. The longer-chain fatty acids are associated with blood clotting and thrombosis.
Short chains are easier to digest and help hormone production and the strengthening of cell membranes. They also have antimicrobial properties, protecting against harmful micro-organisms in the digestive tract.
Beyond there being no clear evidence linking ghee with CVD, it seems that it may even help prevent it. Studies have shown that ghee can lower serum cholesterol levels. This is thought to be due to ghee increasing the secretion of biliary lipids, an important route for the excretion of excess cholesterol.
Much earlier research into saturated fats failed to differentiate between true saturated fats (such as butter and ghee) and synthetically generated “trans” saturated fatty acids. Most fats naturally occur in the “cis” form, which matches fat receptors in each cell. Modern processing (heating, hydrogenation, bleaching, deodorizing) turns “cis” fats into “trans” fats that no longer fit. Instead, they disrupt cellular metabolism.
“Trans” fats have been linked with CVD and many other health problems.
Ghee and Other Oils
As well as saturated fats, ghee consists of 25% monounsaturated fat which is also found in olive oil. Ghee has the same effects as olive oil, such as its ability to clear and clean the bile ducts of the gallbladder and liver. However, ghee also works on all the channels and ducts of the body. Ghee has a relatively low 5% polyunsaturated fat (also found in sesame, sunflower, and groundnut oil).
Monounsaturated fats are generally considered to be a healthful form of fat consumed in moderation.
Ghee is an ideal cooking fat as it is predominantly saturated. All such fats are deemed superior to polyunsaturated fats for frying as they stand up better to high heat than most oils. Ghee’s smoke point (due to the removal of water and protein) makes it a better choice for cooking compared to butter. The smoke point determines when oil burns, generating oxidation of free radicals. Ghee has the highest smoke point of any oil.
Ghee’s low moisture content and inherent anti-oxidative properties also make it very desirable, as its shelf life is long and does not require refrigeration.
In fact, the benefits of ghee increase with age.
Not only does ghee appear to lower serum cholesterol levels, but it also contains anti-oxidants (Vitamins A and E) which prevent free radical damage. Within the body, Vitamins A and E are only bio-available when taken with fats.
Other than ghee, only one other edible fat contains Vitamin A in the form of fish oil, making ghee an ideal delivery vehicle, especially for lacto-vegetarians.
It serves to take anti-oxidants to cell membranes and cell structures made of fat, protecting against free radical damage.
Ghee and Essential Fatty Acids
Ghee contains linoleic acid, an Omega-6 oil, and alpha-linoleic acid, an OMEGA-3 EFA.
Both are also found in another nectar-like substance, breast milk. EFAs are only used for energy if present in excess and generally play the role of stimulating metabolism.
Correlations with ghee’s effects of increasing digestive fire are of great interest in this regard.
Despite their benefits, there are dangers associated with eating the wrong ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. These include CVD, mental disorders (attention deficit disorder, depression, multiple sclerosis, and schizophrenia), and inflammatory diseases. Most of us eat more Omega-6 than Omega-3, but ghee provides both in an ideal ratio of 1:1. (*although human breast milk contains cholesterol, its EFA content keeps it from oxidizing and damaging arteries.)
Ayurvedic wisdom is unequivocal that ghee is an important part of a healthy diet. However, being a science of individualization, even food as wholesome and nourishing as ghee is not always considered healthy. It is contraindicated with excess earth and water elements (kapha dosha) and so should be used sparingly by the overweight. One should also alter intake throughout changes in one’s life and according to the seasons.
Ultimately, ghee can be viewed as a healthy saturated fat that contributes to promoting healthy cell membranes, strong bones, and enhancement of immunity. Most fundamentally, ghee’s role of increasing digestive fire (agni) ensures it has a central role in the process of life and the ability to provide freedom from suffering.
Ancient Wisdom of Ghee
The Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthanam 27;232) says, “ghee is the best fat to eat.” The Shushruta Samhita (Kalpasthanam) says that ghee is “good for coronary arteries.”
Shushruta Samhita Kalpasthanam: Bhava Mishra (Bhavaprakash) says that ghee
- Is a great rejuvenator for the eyes
- Enhances the digestive fire while cooling and alkalizing
- Binds toxins and pacifies pitta and vata
- With proper combining and processing, it is not clogging or kapha aggravating
- Enhances complexion and glow of the face and body
- Increases physical and mental stamina
- Supports learning, retention, and recall
- Increases longevity
- Cools and lubricates the stomach wall
- Nurtures and cleanses blood tissue.
Ghee in Research
Modern research shows that fat-rich foods like ghee
- Supports the eyes
- Gives satiation
- Supports healthy hormone production
- Supports mineral absorption
- Provides sustaining energy
- Supports the health of cell membranes
- Maintains anti-inflammatory process and supports the healing power of the body
- Helps delivery and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Contains butyric acid, which serves as a pre-biotic.
Ghee Do’s and Don’ts in the Kitchen
- Don’t refrigerate ghee, store at room temperature.
- Don’t contaminate ghee (don’t “double dip” with a dirty utensil).
- Do use ghee for cooking just as you would any other cooking oil.
- Do spread ghee on toast, melt over popcorn, etc.
- Don’t use ghee and honey together in equal parts (by weight).
- Don’t dispose of aged ghee. Ghee is like women and wine, it gets better with age!!!
Recipe: Homemade Ghee
- Collect the cream of the milk in a jar for about a week and refrigerate it.
- If you want the cream to be thicker, boil the milk and refrigerate it overnight.
- Collect the cream next morning. Over time, the water settles in the bottom while the cream is afloat.
- Pour the contents of the jar in a food processor and churn on high speed for 2–5 minutes. The butter should come apart from the whey.
- Transfer butter to a non-stick pan.
- Heat the pan on medium until the butter begins to melt and bubbles up.
- Reduce the heat and let it simmer. The milk solids will burn up a little.
- Strain the content in the pan into a jar.
Your homemade ghee is ready for use!
References for this article include Light on Ayurveda Journal.