In my last article (IC, Dec. 2011), I explained why many of us felt ghee was bad and why we were probably wrong. For decades we were told to avoid foods full of saturated fats including ghee because they would cause heart attacks. But the evidence from several studies says otherwise.
As a 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis that look at many studies and was done by researchers at Harvard concludes, the evidence linking saturated fats to a higher risk of heart attacks is not convincing. What I concluded from the science available today is that ghee is not bad per se. Let me now explain why ghee is good.
In general, a natural food that offers nutrition—in contrast to processed food fortified with vitamins but with plenty of added sugars and fats—is good. I believe that natural foods are optimal for good health because our bodies evolved over thousands of years to extract nutrition out of natural foods. In other words, our bodies developed hormones, carriers, bacterial flora and other things to get the most out of food found in nature. Most of these natural foods, such as vegetables, fruits and nuts, are grown from the earth. But some natural foods are cultivated by people.
Yogurt is one such food, and most experts will say with complete confidence that yogurt is good for us. No doubt you eat some yogurt too, although it could be because you grew up with it. Ghee is another such food. Ghee was the quintessential food of our ancestors (evidence of ghee has been found in ancient pottery from the sixth century) and the medium has been used by Ayurvedic practitioners for various medicines.
In addition to being a food, ghee has been used to cook throughout Indian history. This is an important point because as Michael Pollan, the most famous writer on food today, says, doctors, nutritionists, supplement makers, celebrities and writers (including myself) are not the ideal teachers of what is best to eat. Moms are the best teachers, which (to paraphrase Mr. Pollan) is a way of saying that our cultural traditions (not modern culture, mind you) are our best teachers. As such, a cultural tradition like ours would not keep a food throughout the generations unless that food had something valuable to offer.
And ghee does have value. First, it is full of Vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they have to be digested with other fat molecules in order for these vitamins to make it into our bloodstream. Fortunately, ghee has lots of dietary fats (mostly saturated fats) that help our bodies absorb and make use of these vitamins.
Second, in addition to helping our bodies properly digest fat-soluble vitamins which help preserve our vision (Vitamin A) and prevent bone loss (Vitamin D), ghee gives us an antioxidant named conjugated lineolic acid (CLA). CLA is being increasingly studied because early research has shown that this antioxidant has the potential to protect animals from cancers. One day we may find that high levels of CLA in our blood helps protect us from cancers, too. CLA is also known tofight belly fat, one of the hardest areas to eradicate fat from.
Finally, ghee is an excellent cooking medium because it does not break down in high heat like many cooking oils do. From safflower to canola oil, most oils we use in the kitchen can break down in high heat and produce free radicals. These free radicals are bad. In fact, experts tell us to eat more antioxidant rich foods like berries to help fight free radicals, which harm us by damaging our cells and DNA (which can lead to mutations that on occasion can cause a cancer).
Ghee’s smoke point is between 325°F and 375°F, which is much higher than the smoke point of popular oils like canola oil (around 250°F). Thus ghee is more stable in high cooking temperature, typical of a lot of Indian cooking.
It is funny that it took so much research for us to realize that ghee, a part of Indian cooking for as long as people were on the subcontinent, is not bad for us. As the famous food writer Michael Pollan explained, the best teacher of what’s healthy is not the food companies (because it is motivated to profit from cheap food that is often unhealthy), government (too often misguided and pulled in different directions by industry), or nutrition scientists (some admit their research techniques are flawed). The best teacher of what is good to eat is our historical culture, and as he put it, culture is a fancy word for mom and grandmother.
Ghee also tastes good, so consider using ghee (of course in moderation), whether to eat or cook with, and enjoy it knowing that it is part of a healthy Indian diet.
Part 1 of this article “Why Ghee Gets a Bad Rap” was published in the December 2011 issue of IC.
Niraj “Raj” Patel, M.D. is the author of The Healthy Indian Diet, which explains why modern diets are bad, and how traditional Indian diets are good. It contains recipes by Anuja Balasubramanian and Hetal Jannu of ShowMeTheCurry.com. Read Patel’s blog: www.HealthyIndianDiet.com.