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Ghee: Better Than Butter?

Ever wonder about ghee, also known as clarified butter? Get the lowdown.


By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Ghee has become quite popular in certain circles lately. It’s been praised as an alternative to butter that provides additional benefits. However, some people have questioned whether ghee is superior to regular butter, or may even pose health risks. This article takes a detailed look at ghee and how it compares to butter.

What Is Ghee?

Ghee is a type of clarified butter. It’s more concentrated in fat than butter because its water and milk solids have been removed. It has been used in Indian and Pakistani cultures for thousands of years. The term comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “sprinkled.” Ghee was originally created to prevent butter from spoiling during warm weather.

In addition to cooking, it’s used in the Indian alternative medicine system Ayurveda, where it’s known as ghrita. Because its milk solids have been removed, it does not require refrigeration and can be kept at room temperature for several weeks. In fact, like coconut oil, it may become solid when kept at cold temperatures.

Bottom Line: Ghee is a type of clarified butter that is stable at room temperature. It has been used in Indian cooking and Ayurvedic medicine since ancient times.

How Is It Made?

Ghee is made by heating butter to separate the liquid and milk solid portions from the fat. First, butter is boiled until its liquid evaporates and milk solids settle at the bottom of the pan and turn golden to dark brown. Next, the remaining oil (the ghee) is allowed to cool until it becomes warm. It’s then strained before being transferred to jars or containers. It can easily be made at home using grass-fed butter, as shown in this recipe.

Bottom Line: Ghee can be made by heating butter to remove water and milk solids from the fat.

How Does It Compare to Butter?

Ghee and butter have similar nutritional compositions and culinary properties, although there are a few differences.

Calories and Nutrients

This is the nutrition data for one tablespoon (14 grams) of ghee and butter:

Ghee Butter
Calories 112 100
Fat 13 grams 11 grams
Saturated fat 8 grams 7 grams
Monounsaturated fat 4 grams 3 grams
Polyunsaturated fat 0.5 grams 0.5 grams
Protein Trace amounts Trace amounts
Carbs Trace amounts Trace amounts
Vitamin A 8% of the RDI 7% of the RDI
Vitamin E 2% of the RDI 2% of the RDI
Vitamin K 1% of the RDI 1% of the RDI

Both contain nearly 100% of calories from fat.

Ghee is more concentrated than butter. Gram for gram, it provides slightly more butyric acid and other short-chain saturated fats. Test-tube and animal studies suggest that these fats may reduce inflammation, promote gut health and inhibit cancer growth. It’s also slightly higher in conjugated linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat that may help increase fat loss.

Overall, the differences between the two are small, and choosing one over the other likely won’t have a significant impact on your health. However, ghee is completely free of the milk sugar lactose and the milk protein casein, whereas butter contains small amounts of each. For people who have allergies or sensitivities to these dairy components, ghee is clearly the better choice.

Bottom Line: Ghee and butter are nearly 100% fat, but ghee may be the better choice for people with lactose or casein sensitivities.

Use in Cooking and Food Preparation

Butter and ghee are rich in saturated fatty acids, which can handle heat at high temperatures without becoming damaged. Heating ghee also appears to produce much less of the toxic compound acrylamide than heating vegetable and seed oils. In fact, one study found that soybean oil produced more than 10 times as much acrylamide as ghee when each fat was heated to 320°F (160°C).

Furthermore, ghee has a high smoke point, which is the temperature at which fats become volatile and begin to rise as smoke. Its smoke point is 485°F (250°C), which is substantially higher than butter’s smoke point of 350°F (175°C). Therefore, when cooking at very high temperatures, ghee has a distinct advantage over butter. However, while ghee is more stable at high heat, butter may be more suitable for baking and cooking at lower temperatures because of its sweeter, creamier taste.

Bottom Line: Ghee may be better for high-temperature cooking, but butter has a sweeter taste that may be more suitable for baking.

Potential Health Benefits

Some research shows that ghee may provide health benefits.

Heart Health Markers

A number of animal and human studies suggest that consuming ghee may lead to favorable changes in some heart health markers . In a rabbit study, ghee was found to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol and reduce the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries. On the other hand, it also increased fasting blood sugar levels. Moreover, in a controlled study of 206 healthy adults, ghee was the fat source responsible for the greatest increase in ApoA, a protein in HDL particles that’s linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.

However, it’s important to distinguish between ghee made from dairy and ghee made from vegetable oil, which is known as vanaspati ghee or vegetable ghee. Vegetable ghee contains 14–40% trans fats. Some researchers believe that increased consumption of vegetable ghee may be contributing to rising heart disease rates among Indians and Pakistanis.

Bottom Line: Studies have found that ghee may improve some heart health markers. However, make sure to choose dairy ghee and not vegetable ghee.

Cancer

Several animal studies comparing ghee to soybean oil suggest that ghee may reduce the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer. In one study, rats fed 10% of calories from ghee for 44 weeks had lower levels of several breast cancer markers than rats fed 10% of calories from soybean oil. However, more high-quality research is needed to confirm these results.

Bottom Line: Studies in animals have suggested that ghee may reduce the risk of cancer, at least when compared to soybean oil.

Potential Adverse Effects

Based on the results of controlled studies, ghee doesn’t seem to affect LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels very much. However, people’s responses to saturated fat intake are highly variable. Those whose LDL cholesterol levels tend to increase in response to high saturated fat intake may want to limit their ghee or butter intake to one or two tablespoons per day.

Another concern is that during the production of ghee at high heat, its cholesterol may become oxidized. Oxidized cholesterol is linked to an increased risk of several diseases, including heart disease. According to one researcher, detailed analysis has shown that ghee contains oxidized cholesterol but fresh butter does not.

Bottom Line: Potential adverse effects of ghee include an increase in LDL cholesterol levels and the formation of oxidized cholesterol during its production.

Take Home Message

Ghee is a natural food with a long history of medicinal and culinary uses. It provides certain cooking advantages over butter and is definitely preferable if you have a dairy allergy or intolerance. However, at this point, there isn’t any evidence suggesting that it’s healthier than butter overall. Both can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.

This article is reprinted with permission from Authority Nutrition.

Ghee: Better Than Butter?
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