When Haryana players won 32 medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda rewarded them with a curious mix of gifts. Each gold medallist got Rs15 lakh, a car, a phone and 101kg of desi ghee.Silver medallists got Rs10 lakh, a car, a phone and 51kg of desi ghee each. Asked if eating ghee has anything to do with longevity and health in Haryana, Bangalore-based Sheela Krishnaswamy, managing partner and founder, Niche (Nutrition Information Counselling and Health Education), a nutrition consulting company, says, “That would make a strong subject to be researched by scientists considering there’s hardly any research on ghee.”
In the last few years, we have been increasingly adopting Western food habits. We eat strawberries in summer, drink red wine in winter and protect our hearts by cooking in olive oil, all the while gorging increasingly on processed foods. Along the way there have been a few casualties—ghee, for instance, has received a whipping that is completely undeserved. For though it has no backing, neither lobbyists nor conclusive research, it has been revered in Ayurveda for 5,000 years. So how did a product that’s been a health food for centuries suddenly become the devil in disguise?
Photograph by Divya Babu/Mint
For centuries ghee formed the backbone of Ayurvedic medicine. According to Shashi Bala, consultant, Moolchand Ayurveda Hospital, New Delhi, ghee keeps the internal organs lubricated, improves their functioning and helps in producing digestive juices. She says, “Whatever we mix in it, ghee increases the qualities of that particular medicine and food.” In Ayurveda, ghee is said to have the properties of sanskar, or catalyst. In addition, it has healing properties; it is useful in fractures, burns, skin rashes, eye disorders and in different kinds of surgeries. “The basic quality of ghee is cold, therefore it’s also very effective in curing gastric ulcers.” It gives strength to the body and lustre to the skin. Despite all this, its popularity declined in the last few decades. That had nothing to do with the benefits of ghee—just some wrong assumptions.
A big misunderstanding
Half-baked knowledge can be dangerous. For instance, saturated fat is a pariah in food today, along with refined carbs and red meat. But our body requires both saturated and unsaturated fats. Says Krishnaswamy, “Saturated fats are needed by the body and should be taken in small quantities; even cholesterol is not bad—it’s essential for the nervous system to function. Cholesterol has a wide range of functions, including enhancing bone growth, hormone production, digestive juices production, vitamin D production, etc.” She adds, “As long as ghee is taken in small quantities, there is absolutely no reason to avoid it. Out of the four or five teaspoons of any type of fat taken in a day, make sure one is ghee.”
The key is in knowing the difference between high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). LDL sticks to the arteries and builds up plaque while HDL pulls cholesterol from the bloodstream and transfers it to the liver for excretion. Ghee is rich in HDL and has no LDL.
The last few decades have seen a huge surge in coronary heart disease, which is blamed mostly on cholesterol-rich food. Ghee was martyred because it was perceived to be immensely fattening.
Actually, says Krishnaswamy, “When people shifted to vanaspati oils for cooking, it fast-forwarded heart disease.” She adds, “Vanaspati (like Dalda) or margarine is just a hydrogenated oil that contains trans-fats which get converted into cholesterol quickly, thereby promoting heart disease much faster; ghee, on the other hand, contains very small quantities of trans-fats.”
New Delhi-based wellness consultant Shikha Sharma blames our general lifestyle, “Somewhere along the way we lost the context—our sedentary lifestyles and fried food habits are the main culprits, ghee is not really to blame.”
Why it’s healthy
Today, we don’t know that much about ghee. But Annemarie Colbin, founder and chief executive officer of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, New York, says in her book Food and Healing that ghee is one of the three best quality fats to use. For starters, despite being a saturated fat, ghee is made of short-chain fatty acids, which are easier to digest than the long-chain fatty acids, generally found in butter, that are associated with blood clotting, thrombosis and cancer. Short-chain fats are healthy and help promote the production of hormones and strengthen cellular membranes.
Ishi Khosla, clinical nutritionist and director of Delhi-based Whole Foods, a health food company, adds, “Desi ghee is only 65% saturated, with as much as 32% fat being Mufa (mono-unsaturated fatty acids).” She adds, “Mufa is a highly desirable form of dietary fat—the kind olive oil is rich in. It is perhaps even more desirable than Pufa (poly-unsaturated fatty acids).” Research shows that diets rich in Mufa have varied health benefits, including decreased risk of breast cancer, reduced cholesterol, lower risk of heart disease and stroke, weight loss and more.
In fact desi ghee is not prepared by heating to very high temperatures (see box: The Ideal Ghee) like refined oils. This preserves its original nutritional properties. And ghee isn’t more fattening either. Says Khosla, “Oils/ghee are in the range of 90-95% fat so all those who thought it is higher in calories or fat compared to oils should be relieved to know that there is no significant difference in calorie values.”
It’s not all empty calories either. Ghee has vitamins A, D and riboflavin as well as minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), essential for the functioning of the nervous system.
If you ask any ghee lover why they indulge, the answer would usually be that they think it will help lubricate joints in old age. Says Sharma, “It doesn’t directly do that but in Ayurveda, it inhibits the vat element (causing dry skin and joints) in the body which increases in old age.” If you’re lactose intolerant and can’t have butter, you can still have ghee, since all the milk protein is removed when it is made.
Ghee isn’t just good for health. When added to food, it enhances the taste. Before you turn up your nose, consider this: If you’ve ever eaten lobster abroad you must be familiar with drawn butter. It is clarified butter that is used to garnish un-breaded seafood. This is nothing but ghee. It is also very popular in French cooking, where it is called beurre noisette, loosely translated as hazelnut butter, known as brown butter in English—the butter is cooked in a pan until it turns golden brown.
Ghee has a very high smoking point (252 degrees Celsius). This means that there’s very little chance that food will get burnt during cooking, so there’s no risk of free radicals. However, Sharma advises against frying in ghee since it’s possible to end up using too much. Says Khosla: “No one cooking medium is ideal. A combination is best. Using desi ghee as the sole cooking medium is not recommended; rather, alternating with sesame, mustard and olive oil is desirable.”
“A teaspoon a day of ghee isn’t harmful for children and adults even with high cholesterol and heart disease,” says Khosla. Sharma concurs, “Deposits happen not because you eat cholesterol but because over the years, with bad diet and lifestyle, your liver becomes weak and is unable to metabolize this cholesterol.”
So should one go for one of the new light ghee variations in the market? Says Sharma: “Maybe they have decreased cholesterol but I have a problem with meddling with food. Basic brown rice is healthier than white rice, and margarine, which was supposedly healthier than butter, is now known to be bad for health.” She adds, “Natural oils have pigments that are removed through a chemical process, which may not be healthy; when ghee is healthy in itself why mess around with it?”
So enjoy this Indian health food. When combined with a healthy diet and exercise and taken in moderation, ghee will not only nourish your body, but also add a Michelin-star taste to your food.
The Ideal ‘Ghee’
Food contamination is rife and ‘ghee’ hasn’t been left untouched. Pure ‘ghee’ must have a rich, creamy smell along with a grainy texture. Cow ‘ghee’ is yellow in colour, while buffalo ‘ghee’ is white and has a heavier consistency. Still, most of us are not ‘ghee’ connoisseurs—the simplest thing to do is make ‘ghee’ at home. Here’s how:
• Skim the cream off full-cream milk and store in the fridge.
• When you have a substantial amount collected, melt the cream in a wok on medium flame to release the oil.
• Once the oil is released, reduce the flame to a low heat and cook till all the moisture has evaporated and there is a slight reddish tinge in the ‘ghee’. Strain with a metal strainer into a jar, disposing off the sediments.
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