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Your Questions about Ghee – Answered

Sustainable Health

Here’s a bunch of questions on ghee I invited, received  and raised. Are they helpful?

What is desi ghee?
Desi ghee is fat extracted from milk via various routes. The most common route is cream from milk, butter from cream and ghee from butter, also reflected in its western name – clarified butter. There is also the Ayurvedic method that is said to have lower yield (milk to ghee ratio) but higher quality. I do not have a suitable source for the method and am not mentioning it here.

What is the composition of vegetable oils used for cooking?
Different oils are blends of different fatty acids, such as saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids [4]. Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 are also present. Omega-3 PUFAs in plant based oils include ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Examples include soybean, canola and flax seed oils [6]. A high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is said to be beneficial for health. Different oils have different ratios of omega-3s to omega-6s.

What is the composition of desi ghee?
Ghee is 100% fat containing about 98% triglycerides [1]. As a fat, like any other oil, ghee too provides 9 calories per gram [2] and is composed of 72 – 74% saturated fats and 17 – 19% monounsaturated fats [3]. The cholesterol content in ghee is about 178 mg/100 gm [1]. The omega-3 content of traditionally produced ghee is 3.7% and omega-6 content using the same method, 5.38% [3]. The composition of ghee varies based on the method used for production as well as home made and commercial variants [1][3].

How much ghee in a day is too much?
Short answer: Otherwise healthy individuals should not consume more than 22 to 41 grams of ghee / 1.4 to 2.7 tbsp in a day

The daily allowance of saturated fats for men is stated to be 30g, and for women, 20g as per the NHS [2]. Parallels of this exist with currently applicable American policies suggesting limiting the consumption of saturated fats to less than 10% of the daily caloric allowance [5]. This, for men between the ages of 19 and 30 consuming 2000 calorie daily diets amounts to less than 200 calories per day or about 22.2 grams. Similarly for women in the same age group on 1500 calorie diets, it amounts to less than 150 calories or about 16.6 grams of saturated fats per day. Taking both sources into consideration, the maximum recommended intake of saturated fats for otherwise healthy individuals amounts to between 16 and 30 gm per day; practically speaking, that’s not more than 1 to 2 tablespoons a day.

Ghee contains approximately 73% [3] saturated fats, which means the above amount of saturated fat is contained in 22 to 41 grams of ghee in a day, translating to between 1.4 to 2.7 tablespoons a day. This is based on current, mainstream medical recommendations.

Desi ghee is said to be healthier than refined oils. Is this true?
Short answer: No, ghee is not healthier than refined oils. Treat it like any other fat and limit your consumption accordingly. Additionally, ghee is mostly saturated fat, which conventional medical wisdom tells us to limit, which I suggest we do until we have clear and concrete information to the contrary.

We have some degree of confusion here with different sources claiming differently. But first, let’s clarify what we’re speaking of. For the purposes of this article, ghee is a type of fat with high saturated fatty acid content [3]. The point being debated therefore, is saturated fat and its impact on human health, not ghee per se.

On the one hand we have traditional medical knowledge steering us away from saturated fatty acids associated as they have been since long, with cardiovascular disease, cerebro-vascular disease and atherosclerosis [1]. On the other hand, we have evidence of ghee raising blood cholesterol levels via raising HDL cholesterol levels [1], which is considered good, per traditional medicine. Then again, saturated fats have been implicated in an increase in triglyceride levels, high levels of which are further linked to stroke, heart attacks and heart disease [8]. And then there’s evidence of communities and cultures that consume high amounts of saturated fat in their diets, but have no to low incidence of cholesterol and heart disease [7].

Until the scientific community makes up its mind about saturated fats, there’s little you and I can do, apart from following current recommendations and basing our diets on contemporary medical wisdom and common sense, which advises us to limit our intake of saturated fats as well as fats in general, without cutting it out altogether, knowing as we do that fat is a required component of our diets.

A spoonful of desi ghee every day is said to be good for health. How true is that? Is ghee healthy for men above 35 years?
Short answer: 
A teaspoon a day can be beneficial for us, though calories must still be kept in mind.

As before, we have conflicting information on saturated fats and their beneficial or harmful effects, traversing different systems of medicine and therapy. I’m sure most of us would like to gain any healthy effects of ghee consumption while also remaining far away from any ill effects.

Given however that we know the consumption of 1.4 to 2.7 teaspoons of ghee a day is allowed as per current dietary guidelines (see How much ghee in a day is too much?), I say go for a teaspoon a day, but keep in mind that at the end of the day ghee is a fat and it delivers 9 calories per gram and that teaspoon you’re eating is about 45 calories, which will be added to your day’s caloric consumption.

How much ghee can children consume in a day?
Short answer: 
Between 1 to 2.2 tablespoons (maximum) per day, depending on their age.

As per the NHS [2], children should consume less than 20 gm of saturated fat in a day and as per US dietary guidelines (2015-2020)[5], less than 10% of their caloric intake. Given the latter ([5]) is more precise, let’s work with that, okay? Below, I’ve mentioned the gender, age, daily calories, calories for saturated fat, resultant amount of saturated fat and finally, the maximum amount of ghee that is recommended for daily consumption.

  • Child, 1 – 3 yrs @ 1000 kc/day
    • < 100 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 11.1 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 15 gm of ghee (approx 1 tbsp)
  • Female, 4 – 8 yrs @ 1200 kc/day
    • < 120 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 13.3 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 18 gm of ghee (approx 1.2 tbsp)
  • Male, 4 – 8 yrs @ 1400 kc/day
    • < 140 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 15.5 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 21 gm of ghee (approx 1.4 tbsp)
  • Female, 9 – 13 yrs @ 1600 kc/day
    • < 160 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 17.7 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 24 gm of ghee (approx 1.6 tbsp)
  • Male, 9 – 13 yrs @ 1800 kc/day
    • < 180 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 20 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 27 gm of ghee (approx 1.8 tbsp)
  • Female, 14 – 18 yrs @ 1800 kc/day
    • < 180 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 20 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 27 gm of ghee (approx 1.8 tbsp)
  • Male, 14 – 18 yrs @ 2200 kc/day
    • < 220 calories of saturated fat/day
    • < 24.4 gm of saturated fat/day
    • < 33 gm of ghee (approx 2.2 tbsp)

Does the consumption of ghee impact cholesterol levels? How?
Short answer: 
Yes, it does. 

Ghee is largely composed of saturated fats [3] and saturated fats have been implicated in the raising of cholesterol levels [7]. The good news is that saturated fats have been seen to increase HDL cholesterol levels [7] and to convert small LDL particles into larger ones [7], both of which are considered good as per current medical knowledge.

Is ghee made from butter as healthy as commercially produced ghee? Is homemade ghee better than packaged ghee?
Short answer: Home made ghee is more or less as healthy/unhealthy as commercially produced ghee. 

At the end of the day, ghee is a combination of different fatty acids, most of which are saturated and that is what defines it as an edible substance. While specifics vary between different methods of production [3], and the place of production (home or commercial) [1] they do not vary enough for us to treat the different outputs as different substances. Interestingly, I see really overweight people astounded when they learn that homemade food can also cause obesity and similarly, there’s a trend of homemade ghee being seen as nutritionally superior to commercial products. Here’s some interesting facts:

Commercially produced ghee has:

  • Less cholesterol than homemade (161.7 vs 178.2 mg/100 gm) [1]
  • More Vitamin A than homemade (584 vs 447 mcg/100 gm) [1]
  • More Vitamin E than homemade (491 vs 305 mcg/100 gm) [1]

Having said that, in my interactions with the dairy industry in India, it has been stated many times that obtaining large quantities of pure cow or buffalo milk is next to impossible. If that is the case, then how will a company produce what is now all the rage – cow ghee? Apparently, as per a former CEO, even Patanjali may have been mixing its bovines, and its ghee, while labelled as ‘cow ghee’ may not be entirely so [17].

Is it true that pure ghee has a shelf life of up to 100 years?
I have no proper sources mentioning this, with most commercial products claiming up to 2 years unopened and 1 year after opening. There are references to certain types of ghee preparations that could last as long as 100 years.

Is ghee good for deep frying foods?
Short answer: 
Yes

If we must deep fry, it is recommended we choose oils that are mostly composed of saturated fats and monounsaturated fats. This is because polyunsaturated fats form harmful compounds when exposed to heat, and the more saturated fats in an oil, the more stable the oil is when heated. [9]

Ghee is mostly saturated (73%) and monounsaturated fats (18%) [3] which makes it a great choice for deep frying foods. Again, deep frying itself isn’t considered a very good practice, so don’t do it too often.

What’s better – parathas made with ghee or those made with oil and ghee added after they’re made?
Short answer: 
Both are comparable

Given ghee is stable when heated (high saturated/MUFA content [3][9]), apart from questions of absorption, I’d say both will have similar health-based consequences, if the total amount of fat used in both cases is the same and the addition of ghee doesn’t cause your daily saturated fat intake to cross 10% of your daily calories.

Will the daily consumption of ghee cause weight gain? How much ghee per day will not result in weight gain?
Short answer: Yes and no.

Ghee is a fat and delivers 9 calories per gram. If the total amount of calories you consume in a day exceed the number you’re burning through your metabolism and physical activities, you will gain weight. If not, you will lose weight. Ghee per se has nothing to do with either, except as a source of calories.

Is ghee beneficial during pregnancy or after delivery?
Short answer: No.

Given how much Indians revere ghee, supernatural qualities have been ascribed to its consumption, which I cannot comment on as it is a matter of belief though I’m appalled at the sheer obesity prevalent amongst pregnant Indian women as a result of being stuffed with fat and calories far beyond what is normally required or recommended.

As per conventional medical knowledge, the consumption of saturated fats must be kept to within 10% of total caloric intake [5].

Can ghee cause acid reflux?
Short answer: Yes

The increased consumption of saturated fats and a high fat diet has been linked to acid reflux in individuals with a Body Mass Index of 25 kg/m2 or more. Additionally, the consumption of dietary fibre is linked to a reduction in acid reflux [10].

Can ghee contribute to hypertension / high blood pressure?
Short answer: Yes

The increased consumption of saturated fats has been linked to increased blood pressure / hypertension. As per the study, more than 10% of the daily caloric intake was consumed by participants and found that saturated fat intake, age and body mass were strongly associated with increased blood pressure levels. [11]

Does ghee improve brain function?
Short answer: No

  • Ghee is a rich source of saturated fat, containing about 73% [3].
  • As per one study, saturated fat may actually promote cognitive decline in ageing adults [12].
  • Diets enriched in saturated fat are causally associated with neurodegenerative disorders including vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [14][15].
  • Children’s on diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol since infancy, were shown to be progressing normally when compared to others [16].

References:

  1. Ghee: An Ayurvedic and Biochemical Treatise By: Catherine Robbins
    https://www.ayurvedacollege.com/book/export/html/390
  2. Fat: the facts
    https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid content is significantly higher in ghrita prepared by traditional Ayurvedic method
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061595/
  4. Fatty Acids Composition of Vegetable Oils and Its Contribution to Dietary Energy Intake and Dependence of Cardiovascular Mortality on Dietary Intake of Fatty Acids
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4490476/
  5. Dietary Guidelines 2015 – 2020
    https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/executive-summary/#figure-es-12015-2020-dietary-guidelines-for-americans-at-a-glanc
  6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
  7. An Epic Debunking of The Saturated Fat Myth
    https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/it-aint-the-fat-people
  8. Triglycerides: Why do they matter?
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/triglycerides/art-20048186
  9. What Is The Healthiest Oil For Deep Frying? The Crispy Truth
    https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthiest-oil-for-deep-frying
  10. Dietary intake and the risk of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease: a cross sectional study in volunteers
    https://gut.bmj.com/content/54/1/11.short
  11. Association of higher saturated fat intake with higher risk of hypertension in an urban population of Trivandrum in south India.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9021429
  12. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/
  13. The Effects of Long-Term Saturated Fat Enriched Diets on the Brain Lipidome
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5132325/
  14. Western diet consumption and cognitive impairment: links to hippocampal dysfunction and obesity
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21167850/
  15. Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9392577/
  16. Neurological development of 5-year-old children receiving a low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet since infancy: A randomized controlled trial.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10944645
  17. Is Patanjali’s Desi Cow Ghee Even Cow Ghee?
    http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/patanjalis-desi-cow-ghee-even-cow-ghee
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