Ghee is a form of clarified butter (butter with impurities removed) that has been used for thousands of years. Traditionally used for cooking, ghee has unique potential health benefits when consumed in moderation, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and inflammation. Read on to learn more about the proven health benefits of ghee, with mechanisms and side effects.
What Is Ghee (Butter)?
Ghee, also known as ghrita (Ayurvedic), clarified butter, or butter oil, is pure milk fat. It is prepared by heating milk or cream to remove the water via evaporation, followed by filtering out milk solids. Ghee is considered to be the healthiest fat in some cultures (Ayurveda). It is very low in the milk proteins (casein and whey) that is normally found in dairy products [1, 2].
As a source of dietary fat, ghee has been used for preparing various dishes, especially in India. Numerous health benefits are attributed to ghee, such as antioxidant effects, cholesterol lowering, and more [3, 1, 4].
Is Ghee Dairy Free?
Ghee has very low levels of lactose, a milk sugar that affects lactose-intolerant individuals. It is also low in galactose (another milk sugar) as well as the milk proteins, casein and whey. All of this makes ghee suitable to use in a dairy-free diet [5, 3, 1, 4].
Is Ghee Vegan?
Components of Ghee
Ghee is composed of 99-99.5% fat – saturated fats, cholesterol, omega-3 fatty acids, and unsaturated fats. The omega-3 fatty acids in ghee are primarily linoleic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The composition and quality of ghee varies depending on the source of milk (cow, goat, sheep, or buffalo) and how the ghee was produced (see the section: Traditional Versus Industrial Preparation). The remaining 1% is water, traces of milk proteins (casein and whey), carotene/carotenoids (antioxidants), and vitamins (vitamin A, D, K, and E) [6, 7, 8].
Mechanism of Action
Active Components of Ghee
The most active components in ghee are linoleic acid (conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and vitamin K. Linoleic acid and DHA are both omega-3 fatty acids that have a number of health benefits in humans. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential because they can’t be produced in the body. Vitamin K is the name for a group of compounds with a similar structure that is important for heart and bone health [9, 6, 8].
Linoleic acid has anti-cancer, anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergy properties. It increases the activity of enzymes (catalase and superoxide dismutase) that prevent oxidative damage in cells. Additionally, it reduces the amount of fat tissue in the liver and muscles by increasing the activity of another enzyme involved in fat breakdown (carnitine palmitoyltransferase I) .
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a major component of brain and eye tissues (outer layer of cells) that helps in cell signaling. For example, in the retinal cells of the eye, DHA facilitates a reaction of a protein (rhodopsin) involved in signaling to the brain [11, 6].
Additionally, DHA activates certain receptors (peroxisome proliferator-activated and G-protein coupled receptors), which helps increase insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation, and reduce fat levels in the blood .
Health Benefits of Ghee
1) Ghee May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
A survey study investigated the relationship between dietary ghee and the risk of heart disease in rural Indian males. There was a reduced risk of heart disease in individuals consuming more than 1 kg of ghee/a month [14, 7].
A herbal mixture containing ghee (MAK-4 and MAK-5) reduced LDL cholesterol oxidation, which causes atherosclerosis (the thickening and stiffening of arteries), in 10 patients with elevated fat levels in the blood (hyperlipidemia). The treatment involved 10 g of MAK-4 (paste) and 500 mg of MAK-5 (tablet) twice a day for 18 weeks [15, 7, 16].
When rats were fed a diet with 2.5% ghee, blood cholesterol (LDL and VLDL), liver cholesterol, and fat levels decreased. Additionally, a diet of 10% glee increased oleic acid (antioxidant) levels and decreased arachidonic acid (inflammatory) levels .
2) Ghee and Wound Healing
Historically, ghee and honey combinations have been used to treat infected wounds since 600BC. Four hospitals in Mumbai used ghee and honey as dressing for different types of wounds for several years. It was sometimes an effective treatment for wound recovery and pain .
In a study (RCT) with 45 patients, those treated with an herbal ghee mixture (containing R. cordifolia, B. aristata, S. malabarica, W. fruticosa, M. indica, S. racemosa, and E. berberis) had improved wound healing compared to those treated with a disinfectant (povidone-iodine) .
Additionally, rats treated with ghee experienced improved wound-healing, similar to the effect of an antibiotic (mupirocin HCl) .
3) Ghee May Protect the Liver
Ghee increased the levels of antioxidants (catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione transferase) in rat livers leading to decreased cellular damage from harmful reactive oxidative species (ROS) .
Additionally, ghee-fed rats had increased levels of enzymes (glutamyl transpeptidase and uridine diphospho-glucuronosyltransferase) that detoxify carcinogens and other compounds. This prevented damage to the liver and breast tissues .
4) Ghee Acts as an Antioxidant
Linoleic acid (conjugated) from ghee increased the level of antioxidants in the liver and blood of rats, including enzymes like catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione transferase. Additionally, ghee lowered cholesterol and fat (triglyceride) levels in rat livers .
5) Ghee May Reduce Inflammation
6) Ghee May Reduce Cancer
In two rat studies, ghee increased the levels of enzymes (gamma-glutamyltranspeptidase, quinone reductase, and uridine diphospho-glucuronosyltransferase) that detoxify chemicals and carcinogens. These enzymes can reduce the risk of developing cancer .
Rats fed ghee had a lower incidence of tumor development than rats fed soybean oil. Ghee also lowered the levels of certain enzymes related to cancer cells and thus might have a protective effect against cancer [23, 24].
7) Ghee and Learning
However, in another rat study, ghee had no effect on memory, as measured by two different maze tests .
Side Effects and Risks
Generally, the consumption and use of ghee in the studies did not have any side effects listed. However, studies in humans were very limited in number and in the design of the studies.
The application of ghee heated with cow dung on the umbilical wounds of the newborns is not recommended, as it is a health risk and may cause tetanus .
Limitations and Caveats
There is a very limited number of clinical trials focused on ghee. Only one of the human studies was a randomized control trial. Many of the other aforementioned studies were only tested in animals. A lot more additional research, especially controlled and randomized human trials need to be conducted to confirm the findings.
Due to the lack of research, there are no exact dosage recommendations for ghee. In the largest clinical study presented, psoriasis patients received 60 ml doses of ghee over 7 days. This was effective in this experiment and did not have any associated side effects [14, 7].
Ghee vs. Butter
The nutrition content between ghee and butter is similar. The total fat content (saturated, unsaturated, and cholesterol) of the two is nearly identical. However, due to a different preparation, ghee has lower levels of milk proteins and sugars (such as casein, whey, and lactose) than butter [7, 26].
Additionally, due to its low moisture content, ghee has a much longer shelf-life than butter .
How to Make Ghee
Traditional vs Industrial Preparation
The traditional way of making ghee (ghrita) originated in Indian households and is called the Ayurvedic method. The industrial way of making ghee is the direct cream method. In the Ayurvedic method, ghee is made from fermented butter that is washed and then heated until clarified. In the direct cream method, raw cream is heated and clarified [R].
Traditionally prepared ghee contains more phospholipids. Additionally, ghee made through the Ayurvedic method contains a higher amount of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid which is a vital part of eye and brain tissues .
Ghee as Part of the Lectin Avoidance Diet
Ghee, like all oil (ghee, olive oil, caprylic acid, and hemp oil are the best oils), is low in harmful lectins (to see a list of other foods low in lectins, click here). Lectins are proteins that bind to carbohydrates. Although not all lectins are bad, some lectins and other substances found in plants can trigger immune reactions and damage the gut in certain people. These substances can be found in seemingly healthy foods like whole grains, beans, tomatoes, or fruit. Gluten (or gliadin), a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, is a particularly dangerous type of lectin that can cause a lot of damage in the body [28, 29, 30, 31].
Food sensitivity is a set of inflammatory or adverse reactions to food that isn’t an allergic reaction. While food allergies cause an immediate reaction (such as rashes, hives, pain, swelling, and in extreme cases, asthma/airway closure or anaphylactic shock), food sensitivities are usually not immediate and the inflammatory symptoms can last for a few days. Usually, a food sensitivity will cause symptoms that are obscure and don’t fit neatly into any diagnosis such as brain fog, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia .
Although there are food sensitivity tests available, several studies have shown they are not accurate or effective. The gold standard to identify non-allergic food sensitivities is to eliminate the food and bring it back. People with inflammation issues, autoimmune disease (Th1, Th2, Th17 dominance or leaky gut), histamine intolerance, or unexplainable health issues should experiment with an elimination diet, such as the Lectin Avoidance Diet, to see if their symptoms improve.
Ghee is a nutritious fat that is low in inflammation (if you tolerate it). I am sensitive to many things, but I do well with ghee. While some people who usually react to dairy can tolerate ghee, others (especially people with a dairy allergy) have a negative reaction to ghee.
If you are interested in trying (or already love) ghee, try these delicious low-lectin recipes! Ghee is flavorful, does not have any lectins, and is rated least inflammatory, which is great for those who have a lectin sensitivity. For a list of other foods low in lectins, click here.
Making your own ghee is surprisingly simple:
- Melt 1 lb (2 cups or 454 g) of high quality (preferably grass-fed) butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Once melted, reduce to a simmer. The butter should foam up and dissipate, twice. After the second foam, when the butter is a golden color, the ghee is done.
- Gently strain through cheesecloth or mesh strainer into a heat-proof container.
- This recipe should yield slightly less than 2 cups (454 g) of ghee, which can be kept at room temperature for 1 month.
This Bangladeshi version of a chicken korma is fragrant and flavorful but not overly rich:
- Blend together: 1 head peeled and separated garlic, 100 g (3.5 oz) ginger, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 4 tablespoons of water until smooth.
- Heat 5 tablespoons ghee in a saucepan over medium heat and add garlic and ginger mix. Fry mixture for 1-2 minutes, then add 8 cardamom pods (can omit if you want to be strict with lectins), 4 bay leaves and 4 cinnamon sticks.
- Add 5 finely chopped onions and caramelize.
- Add 1 tablespoon salt and 500 ml (17 oz) water and bring to a boil. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce to a simmer. Cover the pan halfway with the lid and simmer until the water has nearly evaporated. This should take 12 – 15 minutes.
- Stir mixture and add another 500 ml (17 oz) water. Simmer as before.
- Repeat this process an additional 5x to draws all of the natural sweetness from the onions and form a sauce.
- Add free-range chicken pieces, and cover with 250 ml (9 oz) water. After bringing the water to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Cover the pan with the lid and cook the chicken for 15-20 minutes, or until cooked through.
For more delicious recipes like these (such as Garlic Ghee Shrimp, Cinnamon Breakfast Porridge, Egg-Free Herbed Flatbread, and many more), please check out our cookbook for a guide to doing an elimination diet and lectin sensitivity!
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- SelfHacked Elimination Diet course – a video course that will help you figure out which diet works best for you
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- SelfHacked cookbook – has recipes for a low inflammatory diet.