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Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >‘Ghee’: superfood or saturated fat?

Ghee, or clarified butter, has a special place in Ayurveda as an ingredient for nourishment and healing, apart from its role in the daily rituals of cooking and worship. In India, ghee used to be the preferred edible fat. Lately it has come under a cloud—its high content of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol is believed to be responsible for the increased prevalence of coronary artery disease in Indians.

But there’s a reason our grandparents still swear by it. “Ghee has taken the place of one of the most misunderstood foods of our times, besides rice," says Rujuta Diwekar, a Mumbai-based dietitian and author of books such as Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight and Women And the Weight Loss Tamasha. “It lubricates joints, is beneficial for skin, (ensures) stronger immune function, better memory, heart health, fertility, and also for assimilation of vitamin D," she adds.

Ghee is prepared by simmering butter to just over 100 degrees Celsius, until most of the water has evaporated. The precipitated milk solids are then removed. From a nutritional stance, both butter and ghee are derived from the fats of whole milk, and contain around 80% milk fat; about two-thirds of that fat is saturated.

“The doubt about ghee exists because people confuse ghee with any other saturated fat. Ghee has a very unique carbon atom structure, much smaller than the usual and commonly found and rightfully feared saturated fat. This unique carbon atom chain is what gives ghee all its therapeutic, almost magical, properties," says Diwekar. “In fact, people should use ghee liberally in their food," she adds.

A 2011 study by scientists from the National Dairy Research Institute in Haryana, published in The Indian Journal of Medical Research, states that ghee from cow’s milk could actually protect us from cancer as it “enhances the availability of enzymes responsible for detoxification of cancer-causing substances".“The doubt related to ghee exists because of half information. People believe that packaged oils are healthy. In fact, it is best to avoid saturated fat that comes in ‘fibre-rich’ biscuits and ‘iron-enriched’ cereals and switch to ghee as it provides the type of fat needed for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins like A and E," says Diwekar. Ghee serves as an antioxidant and is good for the immune system because it acts as a medium for the absorption of all fat-soluble vitamins. Besides, it has a high concentration of butyric acids and fatty acids that contain antiviral properties.

Despite the thumbs up from some dietitians, doctors are still cautious about ghee. Mitendra Singh Yadav, consultant cardiologist, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, says ghee is “just another saturated fat" and should be avoided. “There is no nutritional value of milk that is left in the ghee. It is dangerous for adolescents and adults, and more so if you are a heart patient or obese, as it clogs your arteries," says Dr Yadav. “Young children, however, should have ghee as their body needs fats. For the rest, just keep ghee for occasional events," he adds.

Long shunned as the problem of the developed world, obesity is now extending its flabby arms to developing nations like China and India. According to a report from the UK-based think tank Overseas Development Institute, titled “Future Diets", published in January on its website, 11% people in India are overweight or obese.

Sheela Seharawat, weight-loss and wellness specialist and founder of the Delhi-based Diet Clinic, nevertheless believes one tablespoon of ghee should be included in one’s daily diet as “it moisturizes your body and makes your food, especially the fibre-rich ones, more digestible, while other fats such as oils and butter slow down the digestive progression and sit heavy in the stomach".

Ashis Rout, executive chef at Courtyard by Marriott, Gurgaon, says one tablespoon of ghee should be spread over food throughout the day. “Ghee is very filling and adds a special taste to even the most boring foods like khichdi. However, one should spread the use of ghee in different food items, like on bread during breakfast, on rotis during lunch and a drop of it in your lentils during dinner," advises Rout. “Besides being healthy, the tarka (tempering) made using ghee adds an aroma and richness to food that is otherwise unattainable if one uses vegetable oils," he says.

The market offers various types of ghee, but according to dietitians, it is best to stick to ghee derived from cow’s milk.

This makes little sense to Dr Yadav, however. He says, “There is no difference between cow’s ghee and buffalo ghee as both are just saturated fats without any nutrition because all the nutrition is lost during the process of derivation. Since people are exercising less and sitting in front of their computers the whole day, it would be advisable for them to use olive oil as an alternative to ghee."

Seharawat concurs: “Olive oil retains similar cooking properties to ghee, but is lighter. Also, for people who are lactose intolerant, olive oil can be a great substitute." There are other alternatives as well, like mustard and peanut oil, but people who are obese and have heart problems should opt for olive oil since it is the lightest of all.

While the debate over ghee rages for us lesser mortals, the gods are unaffected. They need, and get, their daily dose.

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