As with a lot of other nutrition-related topics, health experts seem to go back and forth on their opinions of saturated fat. The increase in saturated fat in the diet has been blamed for an uptick in heart disease and stroke.
We know that butter is about 51 percent saturated fat. And a 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research suggests ghee is 60 to 70 percent saturated fat, making it potentially higher in saturated fat than butter. However, a 2010 study published in Ayu indicated the saturated fat content in ghee is only 48 percent.
While neither butter nor ghee are going to make it on a top 10 list of health foods, is one healthier than the other?
What Is Ghee?
Sometimes referred to as clarified butter, ghee is traditionally used in Indian cooking. Ghee is derived from butter. It's made by heating butter just long enough for the water to evaporate, after which the milk solids are filtered out, leaving only the fat. So ghee is often thought to be a purer, and therefore healthier, form of butter.
Health Benefits of Ghee
Heart disease is increasing throughout the world and has become a public health concern. The saturated fat found in many foods, including ghee, have been implicated in this rise.
Most of the studies on ghee have been done on animals with few human studies to draw actionable conclusions. However, some of the studies indicate that saturated fats may not be the sole cause for heart disease.
1. Potential Heart-Health Benefits
Up until a few decades ago, countries with a high amount of ghee in the diet had lower occurrences of heart disease. Those numbers seem to be increasing, and researchers are wondering if ghee is the culprit. Not exactly.
The 2010 study in Ayu references previous studies in rats fed ghee diets, and their cholesterol levels and triglycerides decreased, but other studies were not able to duplicate the results. Human studies referenced were inconclusive, with one showing a decrease in cholesterol and another showing no difference.
2. Lower in Lactose
For those with lactose intolerance, ghee may be a welcomed substitution for butter. Lactose is the type of sugar found in dairy products, including butter. A 2015 study published in Molecular Genetics and Metabolism found that ghee had almost undetectable levels of lactose. The lactose levels in butter were 685 milligrams, and ghee samples had between 0.5 and 2.9 milligrams.
Health Benefits of Butter
Butter, just like ghee, is a source of saturated fat in the diet. While butter isn't going to offer significant health benefits, it shouldn't be praised or shunned. It's a food that can be enjoyed alongside other healthy foods, such as whole grains and vegetables.
1. Lower in Trans Fat
When the low-fat craze became all the rage, butter was replaced by margarines that were loaded with sugar, salt and trans fat. Trans fat is largely found in shelf-stable foods and is identified in an ingredient list by the words "partially hydrogenated."
There has been a shift in thinking in terms of types of fat. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that saturated fat in butter raised cholesterol levels, both good and bad, whereas trans fat raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol.
It's still better to choose unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, canola oil or avocados, but butter is a step above margarines containing trans fat.
2. Type 2 Diabetes Benefits
Butter is on more neutral territory these days in terms of health. While it doesn't seem to increase or decrease the risk of heart disease, small amounts of butter in controlled studies have seen a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers in a 2016 study in Plos One attributed the reduced risk to some of the nutritional properties of butter, including vitamin D content and a small link between full-fat dairy and increased insulin sensitivity.
However, it's important to note that the study didn't compare butter with other fats, only with general foods in the diet. And the researchers make a point to add that, even with the findings, there's no need to increase or decrease the amount of butter in the diet.
Potential Drawbacks of Butter and Ghee
The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats, such as those found in butter, should comprise of no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake to maintain a healthy heart. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that's 120 calories, or 13 grams, of saturated fat per day.
A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2005 found that when women consumed 40 grams of dairy fat in the form of butter (compared to dairy fat in the form of cheese), they experienced an increase in LDL cholesterol. For those already struggling with high cholesterol, it's better to err on the side of consuming less butter.
Keep in mind that cholesterol levels are not influenced only by isolated foods like butter or ghee, but by the diet as a whole. In addition, exercising regularly and not smoking can also help you maintain balanced cholesterol levels.
The Final Word on Butter vs. Ghee
The tides are changing when thinking about saturated fats. Instead of focusing on individual nutrients or individual foods, the whole diet needs to be considered.
For those who wish to make a choice, it may come down to taste and function. Ghee has a nuttier and smoother flavor than butter. It also has a higher smoke point than butter, which means it can withstand higher temperatures, where butter may burn.
Since butter and ghee are similar in terms of nutrition and implications for health, you don't need to cut out butter or ghee completely. Instead, watch your intake and eat it in moderation.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you eat ghee or butter? Had you heard of ghee before? Do you think you'll try it now? If you've tried both, do you have a preference for one or the other? Did you know about the health benefits of ghee? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!
- The Guardian: Butter and Cheese Better Than Trans-Fat Margarines, Says Heart Specialist
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies Evaluating the Association of Saturated Fat With Cardiovascular Disease
- Ayu: The Effect of Ghee (Clarified Butter) on Serum Lipid Levels and Microsomal Lipid Peroxidation
- Lipids in Health and Disease: High Conjugated Linoleic acid Enriched Ghee Increases the Antioxidant and Antiatherogenic Potency in Female Wistar Rats
- What's Cooking America: Clarified Butter Recipe - Butter Ghee Recipe
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Dairy Fat in Cheese Raises LDL Cholesterol Less Than That in Butter in Mildly Hypercholesterolaemic Subjects
- Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry: Hypocholesterolemic Effect of Anhydrous Milk Fat Ghee Is Mediated by Increasing the Secretion of Biliary Lipids
- Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: Comparison between the Effect of Cow Ghee and Butter on Memory and Lipid Profile of Wistar Rats
- Molecular Genetics and Metabolism: The lactose and galactose content of milk fats and suitability for galactosaemia
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Butter increased total and LDL cholesterol compared with olive oil but resulted in higher HDL cholesterol compared with a habitual diet
- Nutrients: Trans Fat Intake and Its Dietary Sources in General Populations Worldwide: A Systematic Review
- PLos One: Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality
- American Heart Association: Saturated Fat
- USDA Nutrient Database: Butter