Ghee, or clarified butter, is a traditional Indian staple food and Ayurvedic medicine. Butter is made into ghee through a gentle boiling process that separates the dairy proteins, water and lactose from the pure golden-coloured butter fat. It is well suited to use in India's climate as it is extremely stable in hot weather, and can incredibly keep for years in a shady cupboard without going rancid. This stability is also what makes it one of the best cooking oils you can find. It is almost fully saturated, which means very little structural change happens to the fat, even at quite extreme temperatures.
The main fatty acid found in butter is call butyric acid, so named because it was first discovered in butter. Butyric acid, also known as butyrate, is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that the intestinal tract thrives on. It helps to protect the integrity of the gut wall. Butyric acid is actually also produced by good bacteria in our digestive systems, as a breakdown product from some types of fibres. It's presence is a sign of a healthy digestive system, as colon cells use it as a preferred energy source. Butyrate is even one thing tested for in a comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA) in order to gauge the health of your digestive system.
Nutritionally, ghee contains vitamins A, D, E and K. These are all fat soluble vitamins essential to health, and the fat content of the ghee helps ensure these are absorbed completely. The vitamin K is particularly important in ghee, as it can be difficult to source in a western diet, especially one restricted due to allergies or intolerances. The exciting news is that some individuals with problems tolerating dairy, can tolerate ghee. This is because the pure butter fat is fairly non-allergenic in it's make up, containing only trace amounts of whey, casein and lactose. I recommend always trialling re-introductions of foods under the guidance of a qualified health professional, and obviously never doing so if you have had a history of anaphylaxis with a certain food.
I can hear some of you saying right now, "hang on, isn't saturated fat bad for you?". Recent research has confirmed that saturated fats have most likely been unfairly targeted as a driving cause of cardiovascular disease. It is becoming fairly accepted that hydrogenated vegetable oils were the wolf in sheep's clothing all along. Often occurring together in processed and packaged foods, these two types of fats could not be more dissimilar. Saturated fats are naturally occurring and have always been incorporated into the diets of humans and animals. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, or 'trans-fats', have been rising steadily in our diets over the last 100 years since industrial processing made vegetable oils more accessible and cheap for food manufactures. The lack of stability of vegetable oils to the high cooking temperatures used in commercial food preparation is the main reason that hydrogenated oils have entered our diets.
A comprehensive review of studies of trans fats published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine reports a strong and reliable connection between trans fat consumption and coronary heart disease (CHD), concluding that "On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of CHD more than any other macronutrient, conferring a substantially increased risk at low levels of consumption (1 to 3% of total energy intake)" Mozaffarian et al (2006) "Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease", New England Journal of Medicine 354 (15) : 1601-1613.
The turn around in public and media perception of fats has been fascinating to watch. Recently Time Magazine had a front page article claiming "Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong". Of course this caused a big stir, as every article claiming that everything you thought you knew about diet is wrong does. If you have time watch this short video (1.5 mins) that has more recently been put onto Time magazine's website please do, it gives a fairly balanced view on saturated fats, and highlights the disagreement between health professionals at the moment. The overall consensus though seems to be that saturated fat is more benign than we previously thought. It will be interesting to see if emerging research will show it has it's own set of health benefits not currently recognised. This would not be surprising, considering humans have evolved consuming these fats as a major energy source.
My stance on fats in my clinic will always come back to the individuals current health status and health goals.
But in summary, here is my general advice:
- Steer clear of trans-fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils whenever possible.
- Avoid vegetable oils, like canola, sunflower and rice bran oil in your general daily cooking.
- Be highly selective about which plant-based oils you use for heating. Olive oil and macadamia oil are two of the best, but keep the temperatures low.
- For hot cooking, like on the stovetop, consider using ghee or coconut oil. Some people thrive on higher amounts of these oils, but check with your health professional if you are unsure.
- Choose grass-fed or organic meats which have a better fat profile than grain-fed counterparts.
- Eat fish weekly or take a high-quality fish oil supplement.
- Flaxseed oil, olive oil and avocados are great for cold uses such as salads.
- Use butter occasionally for flavour, heating to low temperatures, baking or at room temperature.
Although not fat related, there is also a lot to be said about having a diet high in fresh vegetables & fruits, outdoor exercise and moderating our stress levels. Like everything concerning our health, it is never one factor in isolation that determines the outcome. A healthy lifestyle allows for more indulgences for most people.
Here is my recipe for ghee, which I first made from Jude Blereau's Wholefood for Children cookbook. I have been making it since my children were born and have adjusted the recipe slightly. I use it for some pan frying, spreading on toast when our butter is too hard, and cooking pappadums! I also use it to mix it into cooked vegetables for better nutrient absorption. When I first introduced it into our family's food the taste was quite distinct, but we have learnt to enjoy it. Some say it has a bit of a caramel flavour. I recommend transitioning into it's use by using small amounts at first.
500g unsalted butter from grass-fed cows
(Note: most butter from New Zealand is grass-fed due to their high rainfall levels)
- Place butter in a small saucepan
- Melt butter over a low temperature
- Allow butter to simmer gently on low
- Leave simmering for up to 30 mins
- The time will vary depending on your butter and the time of year, due to different water content
- It will hiss and spurt and bubble away
- Check regularly after 20 mins, by using a metal spoon to push foam aside and look
- You are waiting to be able to see the bottom of your saucepan clearly
- Set aside to cool slightly
- Skim the layer off the top, then pour through a fine mesh sieve into a clean jar
- Store in a cool cupboard or on your kitchen bench
It takes a little bit of time to become familiar with the process. My advice is to buy inexpensive butter for your first attempt, as it can burn quickly towards the end if you forget about it. Be prepared to try again, you can experiment by leaving it to cook longer or shorter to se what you like best. Be cautious and safe while your ghee is cooking, especially with young children. It is very hot. For those with dairy sensitivities/allergies , consider straining through cheesecloth also to remove any remaining dairy proteins more thoroughly.
Happy ghee making.