Cleaning up your diet can easily lead you to try exotic foods as you search for healthier alternatives to your usual favorites. Sometimes you come across things like Greek yogurt, which is a versatile and valuable addition to any nutritional plan. Other times, you discover things like ghee -- anhydrous butter oil -- which may be delicious and versatile, but is just fat in another form. Like any fat, small amounts may be okay, but fat is fattening. Ghee is a particularly tricky fat to understand.
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Ghee is basically just clarified butter. Butter is heated until the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan, then the clear liquid is skimmed off and the solids are discarded. The resulting oil, also called butter oil, is able to withstand much higher temperatures without scorching due to the absence of the milk solids, so it is commonly used in cuisines that require high-heat searing and sauteing, especially Indian cuisine. The cholesterol oxides present in ghee have been blamed for the high occurrence of atherosclerosis in Indian populations.
At first glance, ghee doesn't look so unhealthy from a caloric standpoint. A tablespoon has 112 calories, as opposed to 119 for olive oil and 124 for canola oil. But plain butter has only 102 calories per tablespoon -- this shows that removing the milk solids from the butter essentially condenses the fat into a smaller package, turning it into a higher-calorie oil. The calorie differences between ghee and other cooking fats aren't large, but if used repeatedly, it will add up over time.
Oil is fat, pure and simple. It's necessary for certain forms of cooking, to lubricate the pan and add moisture to the food, and some forms of fat can be good for you in moderation. Saturated fat is the problem, and it contributes to heart disease. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature, so it's easy to see that over 7 of butter's 11.5 grams of fat per tablespoon are saturated. Since ghee is a liquid, you would expect it to have less, but not only does ghee have 12.72 grams of total fat per tablespoon, 7.9 of them are saturated. Olive and canola oil, on the other hand, have about 12 to 13 grams of total fat, but only about 1 or 2 grams of saturated fat.
Cholesterol is the waxy fat that can build up in your arteries and cause a blockage if you're not careful. It's a type of fat, and butter has a lot of it -- 31 milligrams per tablespoon, to be exact. Butter's fattier, more condensed offspring, ghee has 33 milligrams per tablespoon. Olive and canola oil are both cholesterol-free. So while ghee has the advantage of providing a crisp saute with a high smoke point, it also has more fat and cholesterol than the alternatives. Any fat can be fattening, but ghee or any butter product can also contribute to heart disease.
- Lancet: Cholesterol Oxides in Indian Ghee: Possible Cause of Unexplained High Risk of Atherosclerosis in Indian Immigrant Populations
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Butter Oil, Anhydrous
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Oil, Olive
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Oil, Canola
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Butter, Without Salt