Food spotlight-ghee

August 13, 2013

Ghee, clarified butter, schmaltz, beurre noisette, yellow oil, samnah... different names from different cultures for what is essentially purified butter-fat.

Ghee is prepared by heating butter until it separates into three layers- a watery layer, an oily layer and a milk solids layer. The oil is retained and heated until it takes on a nutty flavour. The resulting fat is virtually lactose and milk protein free so is suitable for lactose intolerants and those with a milk protein allergy. For those wanting to avoid the insulinogenic effects of casein, this is removed too.

The smoke point of a fat indicates the temperature at which the fat starts to break down, producing some not so nice compounds and setting off your fire alarm. Clarifying butter increases its smoke point from 350 F to 450-475 F. This makes ghee a great alternative to butter or coconut oil for sautéing as these will often smoke when cooking on a high heat. Ghee is also shelf stable at room temperature so you can keep it handy next to the stove-just keep it in a closed container.

Ayurvedic practitioners have used ghee for thousands of years as a health tonic. A physician administered survey of 782 men in Rajathstan, India found that those with higher ghee intakes had a lower incidence of heart disease. For the scientifically inclined, these observations alone are not reason enough to ghee up your diet but they do suggest that perhaps there are some health benefits to butter-fat.

Butter fat is mainly saturated and monounsaturated with only 3% polyunsaturated fat. Studies have produced mixed results on the effects of dairy fats on blood cholesterol but we now know that the generalist notion that saturated fats all negatively affect cholesterol is incorrect. Different saturated fatty acids have different effect s on cholesterol. I remember sneaking (poor student tactic to avoid the exorbitant conference fees) into a day of lectures at the International Dietetics Conference last year in Sydney. One researcher presented her data which indicated that dairy fats had a nil to positive effect on cholesterol. This lecture produced a bit of a stir in the room of dieticians and I distinctly recall chuckling at one audience members’ question on how this [not new] information should impact her advice to clients to avoid butter and full fat milk. I feel that the complexities of saturated fats (among countless other aspects of nutrition science) have been thrown in the ‘too hard basket’ when it comes to nutrition practice.

But enough nutrition politics eh?

Ghee retains all of the original butter’s conjugated linoleic acid (see my previous post on grass-fed beef for more info on CLA) because this compound is fat soluble. It also retains the antioxidant vitamins E and carotenoids.

The Indian subcontinent has produced a lot of research on the health effects of ghee because of its importance in Indian cooking and traditional medicine. A study in psoriasis sufferers found that patients given 60mL of ghee daily for a week had lowered cholesterol, triglycerides and improved psoriasis symptoms. The proposed mechanism for lowered cholesterol is increased bile excretion (bile is the way our body removes cholesterol) due to a chemical called sphingomyelin which binds to cholesterol in the gut. Sphingomyelin is found in milk fat but also in eggs for those who prefer a non-dairy source.

Using ghee in place of other fats in the diet may help to reduce heart disease risk in more ways than just reducing cholesterol levels. Cholesterol generally must be oxidised to contribute to fatty deposits in the blood vessels. The high oleic acid (the much-touted monounsaturated fat in olive oil) content is transferred to our cholesterol molecules where it helps them to resist oxidation. In fact if you’re a big ole nutritional biochemistry nerd like me you may enjoy geeking out on this fascinating article on the biochemistry of oxidised cholesterol:

Animal models are often used for biochemistry research for obvious ethical reasons. Rats fed a ghee supplemented diet had reduced levels of thromboxane’s, leukotrienes and prostaglandins. Our body produces these inflammatory compounds from polyunsaturated fats embedded into our cell membranes. The less inflammation, the lower your heart disease risks.

Even if you do avoid dairy, ghee shouldn’t present any problems and while it may not be strictly ‘paleo’, from the evidence base that does exist, it sits well with me from a health perspective. I regularly use ghee for frying at high heats.

Just one word of warning: don’t try to spread solid ghee onto toast-when my flatmate ran out of butter she found out the hard way that solid ghee on toast is definitely not a flavour sensation!

Until next time,

Happy eating.



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