Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding Ghee

Ghee has been an inherent part of the Indian household since time immemorial. According to the Atharva Veda, ghee strengthens the body and increases the lifespan. It also equates the stream of ghee to elixir, in the line ‘Ghritasya Dharamariten Sambhritam’. The Sanskrit word for ghee is Ghritam. It comes from the root ghr, which means ‘to shine’. Ghee plays an essential role to fuel the Agni (fire) in a Havan – the sacrificial fire.  Ayurveda places a lot of importance in ghee, as a part of daily diet as well as a vehicle for herbal medications and in treatment of several ailments. The scriptures summarize it as Ayurghritam – which translates to Ghee is life. It is cow’s ghee that is given the supreme place in Vedas as well as Ayurveda.
There has been a drastic change in the perception of ghee since the Vedic times. Today, no health conscious individual will touch ghee with a bargepole. Health food is vanishing off the supermarket shelves at some speed and traditional foods are being given the cold shoulder. The PR machinery behind every health food is so strong that a few weeks worth of print media, internet news and TV channels will thoroughly convince you that the particular health food brand is ‘the best’ for you. Centuries ago, when ghee was the preferred medium of cooking, there was no advertising involved and the scriptures did not have any commercial gains in mind when they claimed that ghee was good for health. With this background, it is worthwhile digging deeper into the mystery that is ghee.

Deconstructing ghee
Ghee is the ultimate end product of milk. The quality of ghee depends on the quality of milk which in turn depends on the diet of the cattle. Needless to say, ghee is of a superior quality where the cows are allowed roam freely with access to juicy grass and fresh pastures as compared to cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations.  If the milk is adulterated with growth hormones, pesticides and antibiotics, these substances will get concentrated in the ghee too. If the cows graze on lush grassy patches, the ghee is deeper golden due to higher levels of chlorophyll in their milk and butter.
Making ghee at home
When milk is boiled and allowed to sit for a few hours, the fat in the milk floats up in the form of cream. This cream is collected and yogurt culture added to it, to sour the cream. The sour cream is subjected to agitation by a blender or by shaking it in a bottle, and the butter floats on the top. The butter is then allowed to simmer in a heavy bottomed pan until all the water content bubbles out – and the milk solids separate to give golden coloured ghee. This can be filtered to remove the milk solids and this ghee will remain good for a long time without refrigeration. In olden days, ghee used to be preserved in temples for well over hundred years.
Ghee, Ayurveda and modern science
According to Ayurveda, cow’s ghee promotes memory, intellect and digestion. It also promotes wound healing, keeps the skin lustrous and maintains the body’s immunity.
Modern science has discovered that ghee is rich in antioxidants and the fats in ghee aid absorption of fat soluble vitamins and minerals from other foods, strengthening the immune system. Ghee is also found to be rich in butyric acid, a fatty acid with anti-viral properties, which is believed to prevent cancers and tumours. This is probably one of the reasons why cancer was not so commonly found five-six decades ago in India as ghee was a mainstay of the Indian diet. Recent research has detected presence of linoleic acid in ghee which is often lacking in vegetarian diet. Linoleic acid retards the growth of some cancers and offers some protection from heart disease. It also has shown some effect in reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass.
Although Ayurveda promotes consumption of ghee for a variety of benefits, it also warns the obese person to use this frugally.
Some facts about ghee
  1. Ghee is a source of beta-carotene and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Beta carotene and vitamin E are vital antioxidants. Vitamin A is naturally present in ghee which is lacking in other edible oils.
  2. Ghee has no milk solids, lactose or sugars. These are separated out when the butter is made into ghee.
  3. Organic ghee has no additives, preservatives, oxidized cholesterol or transfatty acids. Oxidized cholesterol and transfats are responsible for clogging arteries and causing ischemic heart disease.
  4. Ghee is highly stable, will not go rancid even if kept at room temperature. However it is important that you keep moisture away – closing lid of the jar when ghee is hot will cause condensation droplets to form inside and so will removing ghee from fridge to room temperature, which is why refrigeration is not recommended.
  5. It has a very high smoke point – which means ghee will not burn at high cooking temperatures. Our ancestors were very wise in choosing ghee as the medium for deep frying. As ghee became maligned and more expensive, people moved to vanaspati and later to oil as the vanaspati was found to contain heart-harming hydrogenated fats.
  6. Ghee is primarily saturated fat. One tablespoon of ghee provides 14 grams of saturated fat, 28 mg of cholesterol and roughly 120 calories.

The cholesterol confusion
According to the American Heart Association, healthy people must consume less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily – people with heart disease should limit it to less than 200 milligrams daily.  A myth about cholesterol that needs to be clarified here is that even if you ate a zero cholesterol diet – your cholesterol levels will never fall to zero as your liver inherently manufactures cholesterol and it is for a purpose. Cholesterol is essential for production of sex hormones, bile acids for digestion and vital for brain development.  Some of the cholesterol lowering drugs act by preventing the liver from synthesizing it. A report in the Science Daily quotes that “such medications reduce the synthesis of cholesterol which is necessary in the brain reducing memory and cognitive skills.” However, cholesterol in the diet does not improve brain function as cholesterol in the blood cannot reach the brain.
Compare the cholesterol content of one whole medium egg which is 185 mg to a tablespoon of ghee which is 28 mg. So if you feel virtuous about eating a two egg omelette for breakfast and worry about the teaspoon of ghee your mother uses for the tempering the dal, then think again!
In fact a study actually showed that addition of ghee to diet reduced the serum cholesterol levels due to increased excretion of cholesterol and other lipids into the bile.
The all important ratio Omega 6 : Omega 3
The ideal ratio for Indians is recommended as 4:1, but the prevalent ratio is 40: 1 and because of excessive omega 6 in the diet, it is almost touching 150-120 : 1. Anything above ten is considered harmful. Excessive omega 6 fatty acids in diet as compared to omega 3 increase the risk of clotting and therefore the risk of heart disease.

Cooking mediumO6:O3
Sesame / gingelly80:1
Coconut oil1.8:0
Cow’s ghee3.2:1
Buffalo’s ghee2.2:1

Dr B S Raheja, the ex-Director of the All India Institute of Diabetes, categorically pointed out in a report that ‘‘the present epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers’’ is due to ghee not being used in our present diet and their rise is due to a shift in cooking medium and increased consumption of fast and preserved foods. The Diabetes Association of India clearly spells out the guidelines for fat intake in Indians. It highly recommends traditional cooking media like ghee, mustard oil and coconut oil depending on your geography as they have been used in India since centuries without any ill effects. The guidelines also recommend omitting all other refined cooking oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, groundnut and vanaspatis. These correct the levels of increasing Omega 6 in our body as is visible in the table. Intake of oily fish two-three times a week and omega 3 supplements or flaxseeds in vegetarians will help maintain the Omega 6:3 ratio. Deficiency of Omega 3 is linked to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, eye problems, some skin conditions and immune disorders.
In present times, one cannot use ghee as generously as our ancestors did, due to its high calorific value, saturated fat and cholesterol levels that don’t match our relatively less active lifestyle– but surely using it wisely will bestow a lot of health benefits. Please consult your doctor / nutritionist before making any major modifications to your diet.

[Edited version published in Complete Wellbeing September 2010 - Here]