By Niraj Patel, MD
Growing up, I thought that ghee was dangerous. Uncles and aunties would say, “We’re cutting back on ghee,” or, “We don’t use that stuff anymore, it’s so bad for you.” I wondered why ghee got such a bad rap, and soon I learned everyone’s doctors had been urging them to drop ghee because something called saturated fats – which ghee has in abundance – causes heart attacks.
Desis, it turned out, were susceptible to heart attacks. Someone from our community had a heart attack almost every month, or so it seemed then, and sometimes an uncle we knew would die from it. So finding what caused heart attacks was a really big deal. Now fast forward to today, and here be a new thought. What if we were wrong about ghee? What if eating ghee, or using ghee to cook food, never caused heart attacks?
Research in the past decade strongly suggests that ghee was not the problem. If we were wrong about ghee, we were not alone. At the same time Indian-Americans were dropping ghee, Americans were dropping butter (from which ghee is made) for margarine, a processed oil-and-milk product. The replacement of butter, which had been eaten traditionally throughout America’s history, was part of the bigger phenomenon of Americans adopting a low-fat diet.
The motivating factor was the “lipid hypothesis.” Research since the 1950s led experts to believe that diets high in cholesterol and saturated fats would cause coronary heart disease, the kind that led to heart attacks. Although the science was not complete or entirely convincing, the idea that lipids (or cholesterols) cause heart attacks became accepted as fact. In the 1970s, the US government, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and other groups, hoping to slow down the rise in heart disease, began a massive campaign to convince us to stop eating foods containing a lot of fat. This is why your doctor told you to drop ghee.
Just as Indian-Americans stopped eating ghee, Americans replaced their high-fat foods. According to the USDA, less dietary fat is consumed per American today than in 1965. During the same period, the per capita consumption of refined grains, a source of easily digestible carbs (something I’ll return to soon), went up. Here’s the thing. The percentage of Americans, who had obesity and diabetes, went up, too. And the prevalence of coronary disease and heart attacks stayed the same, even though it was predicted that these two rates should come down as people ate less fat.
Experts had to admit they were wrong. One prominent researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, which once advocated the lipid hypothesis, wrote in a famous 2001 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.” At the same time, evidence was accumulating that easily digested carbohydrates were the main thing in our foods that were increasing our risk of heart disease and diabetes.
A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine explained that people on a low-carb diet (which is high in fat including saturated fat) had the best cholesterol levels. On the other hand, people with the worst cholesterol levels were eating a low-fat (and high-carb) diet. This is exactly opposite what early experts predicted. Whether food companies knew it or not, their scientists replaced dietary fats and added processed foods like high fructose corn syrup and plain old white sugar into packaged snacks, frozen meals, and popular drinks like soda. Companies catering to the Indian-Americans market did the same thing.
Like us, food companies began using oils that were sometimes harmful, namely hydrogenated vegetable oils containing trans fats, a food particle now banned in places like New York and San Francisco because the science is so convincing that trans fats more than any other component in food promotes heart disease. Yet very little evidence associates saturated fats with coronary heart disease.
This is why I want to set the record straight on ghee. I want to make sure our community has a better understanding of how what we eat influences our health. After all, South Asians, who immigrated to the West (like my own parents), have among the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes, even higher than whites and other Asian groups as a 2006 study in the cardiology journal Circulation explained. I know this sounds strange considering that we eat little red meat and lots of vegetables. But part of the problem is what we cook our vegetables in: oils not meant for the high temperatures and prolonged heat typical of Indian cooking. Ghee has a smoke point – the temperature at which oils break down and produce harmful cell-damaging oxidants – of almost 500°F, which is higher than most cooking oils. This means that ghee tends to stay longer in its original form under heat.
Instead of avoiding ghee and saturated fats, we should avoid easily digestible carbohydrates that come in white rice, white sugar, white potatoes, and refined wheat (or maida in Hindi) used to make breads like chapatti. I describe why in greater detail in “The Healthy Indian Diet,” but for now I want to express that according to the scientific evidence, ghee is not dangerous as we all thought. It is okay to eat ghee or to use it for cooking – with the stipulation “all things in moderation” and is part of the plant-based diet incorporating spices.
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. A civilization tends to get rid of foods that are harmful, and that ghee made it through our civilization conveys some truth on the matter. 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.
Earlier, I explained why many of us were wrong about ghee. For decades we were told that ghee is bad, that it causes heart attacks. But this may not be the case if we consider the evidence from several recent studies. Researchers like Dr. Frank Hu and his team at Harvard, who used to believe that there was a strong link between saturated fats (which is abundant in ghee) and heart attacks, have turned around and expressed doubt about that association more recently.
Now let me explain why ghee is good. Generally, a natural food that offers nutrition – as opposed to processed food fortified with artificially added vitamins and minerals – is good. This is because our bodies have evolved to extract nourishment from natural foods. Most of these natural foods are grown from the earth, such as vegetables, fruits and nuts. But some foods do not come from the ground and are instead cultivated by people.
Ghee is one such food, having been found in ancient pottery from the 6th century. Ghee was the quintessential food of our ancestors and the medium used by Ayurvedic practitioners for various medicines. The use of ghee to cook food has passed from mother to mother throughout Indian history, which is an important point because the most famous writer on food today, Michael Pollan, says doctors, nutritionists, supplement sellers, celebrities and writers (including myself) aren’t the ideal teacher of what’s good to eat. Culture is. And a culture would not pass a food from generation to generation unless the food is valuable.
And ghee was recognized to have good value. Ghee contains some vitamins and helps us absorb others, specifically Vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they have to be surrounded by dietary fat when inside our small intestine in order to be properly digested and passed on into our bloodstream. Fortunately, ghee has lots of fat.
Don’t let this scare you. As I explained, recent meta-analysis has not shown a conclusive link between saturated fat found in ghee and an increased risk for heart attacks. (That said, don’t eat all the ghee you want – everything must be had in moderation!)
In addition to fat-soluble vitamins, which helps you keep your ability to see light and colors (Vitamin A) intact and prevents bone loss (Vitamin D) whether young or old, ghee gives us at least one kind of antioxidant named conjugated lineolic acid (CLA), which has received press in the media because it has protected animals from developing cancers. CLA may have this power in people, too. Only human studies will tell.
Finally, ghee makes an excellent cooking medium because it doesn’t break down in high cooking heat. Other oils we use for cooking, such as safflower or canola oil, can break down in high heat and produce what are called free radicals. These free radicals are bad, and we eat antioxidant-rich foods like berries to help fight these free radicals before they hurt us. (They damage our cells and sometimes our DNA, which can lead to mutations that on a rare occasion can lead to cancer.) Ghee has a smoke point between 325°F and 375°F, compared with around 250°F for canola, the most common cooking oil, which means we can cook at a much higher heat when using ghee with less worry about these free radicals.
To sum it up, ghee helps us absorb vitamins that keep our eyes and bones healthy, contains an important antioxidant called CLA, which has been shown to prevent cancers in animals, and makes an excellent cooking medium because it does not break down and create free radicals like many other cooking oils do. Ghee also tastes good. So don’t be afraid of using ghee – a little, not too much of course – as part of a healthy Indian diet.