Ghee, also known as clarified butter, has been a staple in Indian cooking for centuries. It’s a key part of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, which focuses a great deal on energy and digestion. While not always consistent with Western science, Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years and claims many medical uses for ghee.
In more recent years, ghee has become popular in the keto and paleo diets as a food deserving of superfood status. While there are many reasons to add ghee into your kitchen arsenal, it’s important to know the facts and not get swept up in the hype. Ghee has a number of beneficial health properties, but it’s not a magic bullet.
The Interesting History of Ghee Butter
Ghee has been around for a very long time. How long exactly is uncertain, since its invention precedes the invention of paper and writing. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit word meaning clarified butter.
Although it’s enjoying popularity in recent years in the U.S., it was mentioned as early as 1831 in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe and again in an 1863 cookbook.
This ancient wonder has seen increased demand relatively proportional to the fall of fatphobia. As more evidence points to the detrimental effects of low-fat and no-fat diets — and conversely, how diets rich in good fats can be good for your health — the more popular ghee has become.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter. Clarifying butter is the process of heating butter to allow the milk solids (sugar and protein) and water to separate from the milk fats. The milk solids are skimmed off and the water evaporates, leaving behind the fat.
The process of making ghee involves prolonged heat exposure, which caramelizes the milk solids and imprints a distinctly nutty flavor in the ghee before it’s skimmed off. There is virtually no water remaining in ghee once the clarification process is complete. This prolongs the shelf life and makes it stable at room temp.
Ghee has a distinctly robust flavor that many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes are known for.
Nutrition of Ghee Butter
Ghee is made up entirely of fat, so the nutrient content isn’t going to be on par with superfoods like kale, avocados, or celery root. That’s not to say that ghee is devoid of important constituents that are beneficial to your health. In fact, it’s rich in a compound called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vitamin A.
Here’s the nutritional breakdown of 1 tablespoon of ghee[*]:
- 112 calories
- 0g carbohydrate
- 12.73g fat
- 0g protein
- 0g fiber
- 393 IU Vitamin A (8% DV)
- .36 mcg Vitamin E (2% DV)
- 1.1 mcg Vitamin K (1% DV)
Again, the nutritional breakdown of this fat isn’t riveting, but ghee does offer a better alternative to your average cooking oil. It’s shelf-stable and unlikely to go rancid before you use it, it has a higher smoke point than many cooking oils, and it’s delicious.
Many articles online boast that ghee is good for your bone health because it has vitamin K2. This isn’t necessarily the case in practical terms.
One hundred grams of ghee contains 8.6 micrograms of vitamin K2, which is 11% of the recommended daily value (RDV). But 100 grams is a lot of ghee — nearly half a cup, and the recommended serving is no more than a tablespoon. You’d have to eat 8 tablespoons of ghee to reach these vitamin K2 numbers. A typical serving of ghee will get you to 1% of your vitamin K2 RDV.
With the International Osteoporosis Foundation reporting that 8.9 million osteoporosis fractures occur globally each year, misreporting that a food is good for bone health seems irresponsible[*].
Vitamin K2 is good for both heart and bone health because it takes calcium from the arteries and fortifies bone with it — creating strong bones instead of hard arteries[*]. But there isn’t enough vitamin K in a healthy daily intake of ghee to substantiate a claim that it’s a food rich in vitamin K.
However, ghee is a healthy fat to cook with and vitamin K is fat-soluble. Using ghee to cook vitamin K-rich foods like kale, broccoli, and spinach will help you get the vitamin K you need for long-term heart and bone health.
In summation, ghee itself isn’t good for bone health, but it’s a great fat to cook foods that are.
“Packed” might be taking it a bit far. There are 4 fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, E, and K. Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin that your skin makes during sun exposure. It’s then activated in your liver to aid in over 200 functions. You can find limited amounts of vitamin D in foods like mushrooms and in fortified foods like milk[*].
Vitamins A is most abundant in animal livers, cheeses, and colorful veggies like winter squash, sweet potatoes, kale, and chard. Vitamin E is abundant in nuts, seeds, and many edible sea creatures, while vitamin K is found mostly in leafy greens, soybeans, and crucifers like kale, collard greens, and broccoli[*][*][*].
You don’t see ghee anywhere on these lists. One tablespoon of ghee packs 8% of the daily recommended amounts of vitamin A, 2% of vitamin E, and 1% of vitamin K. These are tiny amounts and not worth elevating ghee to superfood status. Ghee is a great swap for unhealthy oils, and the fat in ghee can help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins found in foods rich in those vitamins.
Grass-fed and finished butter contains butyrate, also known as butyric acid. Butyrate is a compound that has shown to have a bevy of health benefits ranging from the preferential energy supply for colon cells to fortifying gut health to cancer prevention to improved insulin sensitivity[*][*][*][*].
Butyrate is great for you, and you can find it in grass-fed butter, but there’s no scientific evidence it’s in ghee. Keto and paleo bloggers might be willing to make the leap that if the butter had it before processing, the ghee must have it afterward. But it’s likely that the prolonged heating process damages the butyrate.
Bottom line: There’s no evidence that ghee contains butyrate. If you want butyrate, opt for grass-fed butter.
4 Legitimate Health Benefits of Ghee Butter
Know the facts from the hype. Here are four health benefits that come from ghee.
#1. Conjugated Linoleic Acids
Ghee contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to improved heart health, and weight and blood glucose regulation, among other health benefits.
Research is pointing to CLA’s role in blood glucose regulation and its ability to lower adiponectin concentrations, which in turn increases insulin sensitivity. This not only helps with blood glucose regulation, but it helps with more dangerous outcomes like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity[*].
Conjugated linoleic acid has been found to increase lean body mass (muscle) while decreasing fat tissue in obese individuals because it modifies testosterone in the body. A small 2017 study CLA improved performance in long-distance athletes by staving off fatigue longer than a placebo[*].
A promising animal study released in March 2018 showed that CLA injected into injured joints correlated with a decrease in degradation and an increase in cartilage regeneration[*]. This builds on an established body of evidence that CLA reduces inflammation.
#2. Higher Smoke Point
Ghee has a significantly higher smoke point than butter. The smoke point is the highest temperature a fat can reach before its fatty acids oxidize, creating harmful free radicals in addition to a bad, burnt flavor.
Some of the most delicious foods are cooked at higher temperatures to produce a crisp final product, giving ghee a leg up from butter and a number of other cooking oils. Ghee has a high smoke point of 485°F, while butter is 350°F. Knowing this might help motivate you to swap out your vegetable oils for ghee.
For years, nutrition advice consisted of avoiding animal fats and other saturated fats like coconut oil in favor of vegetable oils like corn, canola, and soybean. But the majority of vegetable oils on the market are made from genetically modified plants, overly processed, and bottled in clear containers that lead to light damage long before they ever make it into your grocery cart. Furthermore, when these oils are added to a food product they are often partially hydrogenated, producing unhealthy trans fats.
By replacing your vegetable oils with ghee — whether you’re cooking meat, sauteing veggies, or baking dessert — you are avoiding the damage that vegetable oils can do to your health.
#3. Makes Healthy Foods Easy and Palatable
Because of the way ghee is prepared, it’s stable at room temp and for a long period of time. Exact timing depends on the product or preparation method. That said, you can keep it in the cabinet or on the counter and not worry about it going bad quickly.
Pair simple storage and long shelf life with a rich nutty flavor that accentuates whatever you’re cooking, and you have a product that’s going to help you add more healthy foods into your diet. You’re a lot more likely to eat healthy foods if they’re also delicious, right?
The nutty flavor will give your greens a flavor boost, and the fat will help you stay satiated longer. For this reason ghee makes an excellent cooking fat.
#4. Healthy Weight Loss
As mentioned, fat helps you stay full longer, decreasing the number of calories you take in and helping stave off cravings. But there is more to the story with ghee and healthy weight loss.
The conjugated linoleic acid found in ghee butter helps with blood glucose regulation by way of insulin sensitivity. It also helps body composition in obese individuals via testosterone modulation. Additionally, CLA reduces inflammation, one of the biggest culprits behind the obesity epidemic[*][*].
But there is a third way that ghee helps with weight loss. Ghee contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) like those found in coconut oil. Medium-chain fatty acids have been found to decrease body weight, waist circumference (the inches in your waist), and total fat and visceral adiposity (deep, stubborn belly fat) — all of which add up to healthy weight loss[*].
Ghee hits weight loss with a triple whammy of health benefits while making other healthy foods more palatable.
How to Buy and Store Ghee Butter
There are no safety studies done on ghee made from cattle that were given artificial hormones and antibiotics, so your safest bet is to choose organic, grass-fed ghee. Store it at room temperature, either on the counter or in your pantry.
Ghee Butter Safety Concerns
Ghee is not vegan, as it is made from butter. Those sticking to a vegan diet can get their MCTs from coconut oil instead, which is the base for vegan or vegetable ghee.
Ghee is not a dairy-free food. While the process of making ghee removes the majority of casein and lactose (the two main allergens in dairy products), there’s no guarantee that trace amounts don’t remain. If you’re casein- or lactose intolerant or sensitive, it might be worth testing out to see if you have a reaction. However, if you have a full-blown allergy, it’s probably best avoided.
As with anything, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Keep your ghee consumption in check, as it’s very high in calories. Excessive consumption of ghee, or any fat, not only negates the health benefits, but it will lead to steatorrhea — akin to diarrhea but loose stool due to excessive fat, rather than water.
The Truth About Ghee Butter
Now that you’ve cut through the hype and understand the true health benefits of ghee, you can feel good about adding it to your keto meal plan. Organic, grass-fed ghee makes a perfect 1:1 healthy swap for other cooking oils in your baking, sauteing and more. It may not be a superfood, but its bold, nutty flavor does a super job of bringing out the best in other healthy foods.