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Q&A: What is ghee?

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Ghee purchased from the local Chico Farmers Market
Ghee purchased from the local Chico Farmers Market

The other day I went to the farmers market and I came across a new booth that was selling ghee.  Ghee is clarified butter that is primarily used in Indian cooking.  I was very excited to see ghee being sold since it is difficult to find and takes time to make.  To make ghee, butter is cooked over low heat until the water evaporates and the milk solids separate.  The milk solids are then removed and you are left with ghee.  One of the best advantages of ghee is its high smoke point of 485 F, which allows you to use it for baking, sautéing or frying.  The nutty flavor of ghee tastes great in cooking and adds a flavorful richness to your foods.  It is also considered dairy-free and shelf stable.

Ghee has been touted by Ayurvedic medicine as being essential to a balanced diet.  It claims ghee can aid in digestion, improve memory function, and reduce inflammation in the body.  Ghee has also been used topically to soften skin and help heal burns.  But are these claims true?  Being the dietitian I am, I tried investigating research articles to see if any of the Ayurvedic claims were proven to be true.  To my disappointment there has not been much research involving ghee.  There were only two articles I found that pertained to ghee.  The first, published in the International Journal of Cardiologyfound that high consumption of trans-fat, milk, and clarified butter (ghee) combined with a sedentary lifestyle was associated with higher rates of coronary artery disease.   But to be honest, this is not surprising. Any diet high in animal fat combined with low physical activity may lead to coronary heart disease.

The second article I found was a little more promising.  This research was recently published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, and demonstrated ghee was superior to soybean oil in the down-regulation of carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes in the liver of rats.  Ghee’s anticarcinogenic properties may be attributed to the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) according to the researchers.  Even though this research may show ghee as beneficial we need much more research.  The research in this study was performed on rats which does mean the same benefits can be applied to humans.  In addition, the research was funded by the dairy council in India which may have had a vested interest in the results of the study.

So should you use ghee in your cooking? If you are looking for a healthy fat I would still recommend extra virgin olive oil, but if you want to try something new or want an alternative to butter I would say go ahead and give ghee a try.  Ghee is still considered a saturated fat and like any fat it should be used in moderation.   I would not expect any miracles to happen from ghee, but it might add some delicious flavor to your meals and help you prepare items that require a high smoke point.   If you would like to purchase ghee you can get it here.  Happy cooking :)

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