Ghee — Friend or foe?

Published May 4, 2015
Ghee has gotten a bad rap ever since the advent of industrialisation and the introduction of vegetable oils and margarine in the early 1900s. —Creative commons
Ghee has gotten a bad rap ever since the advent of industrialisation and the introduction of vegetable oils and margarine in the early 1900s. —Creative commons

Ghee. For most of us Pakistanis, that word conjures up a vivid image of our mother or grandmothers, dupatta tied at the waist, dipping into a big tin with a cow on it and serving up warm parathas; the buttery aroma of ghee would fill up the entire kitchen.

But, mention the word “ghee” outside of Pakistan – in places like Canada for example – and people associate it with an exotic health food. Ghee is often found in small jars in specialty health food stores, and one 370g jar of ‘St. Francis Organic Butter Ghee’ retails at $29.99 or approximately PKR 2535; my jaw dropped when I first saw that price at a Canadian store.

But wait – health food? Isn’t ghee anything BUT a health food? Doesn’t it make you gain weight? Shouldn’t we all be switching to healthier alternatives like vegetable oil?

As a holistic nutritionist, I can assure you that the answer to all of the above is a big “no”.

Let’s tackle these myths one at a time.

Isn’t ghee anything BUT a health food?

Not quite so. Unfortunately, ghee has gotten a bad rap ever since the advent of industrialisation and the introduction of vegetable oils and margarine in the early 1900s. Ghee, or clarified butter, used to be a staple in every household, but now it appears to have been replaced by plastic bags or bottles of vegetable oil.

Also read: How Pakistan's fast-food trend is devouring you

According to Dr. Vasant Lad, author of the book ‘Ayurveda – The Science of Self-Healing’ and director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, NM, ghee helps to lubricate connective tissue and promote flexibility, improve digestion, boost the immune system, alleviate peptic ulcers and colitis, increase wound healing, enhance intelligence and memory, and aid with chronic fever, anemia, and blood disorders.

And if that wasn’t enough, ghee is also rich in vitamins A, D, E and K, is lactose-free, does not raise cholesterol levels, and – if from a grass-fed source – it contains Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), a type of fatty acid that assists with weight loss!

Doesn’t it make you fat?

If eaten in excess, yes it does. That being said, even if you eat other healthy foods like avocados or nuts in excess, the same will happen because they are high in calories. One tablespoon of ghee is 112 calories, so if you’re slapping on spoonfuls for one roti or paratha, it’s definitely not going to help your waistline.

—Creative commons
—Creative commons

Of course, we have to remember that in the context of the much larger obesity problem in Pakistan, the overconsumption of ghee is a very minute part of the problem. If you’re worried about an expanding waistline, it just comes down following the basics, which include reducing junk, fried food and sweets, eating in moderation, exercising more often, and making fruits and vegetables a part of your daily diet.

Shouldn’t we all be switching to healthier alternatives like vegetable oil?

First of all, the images on vegetable oil cartons are deceiving. I’m not sure how marketers get away with showing images of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and lettuce leaves.

I assure you, no amount of squeezing lettuce will result in oil. Vegetable oil is typically a mixture of oils extracted from rapeseed (canola), soybean, corn, sunflower and safflower.

Second of all, let’s do a quick science lesson! There are two types of fats: unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fats, such as the ones found in vegetable oils, have double bonds in their chemical structure, which means they are more fluid, mobile, and make the blood less “sticky”.

Saturated fats, on the other hand – which are found in ghee – have no double bonds, making them more rigid and the blood thicker. That’s the reason we’ve been taught to eat more of the former, and less of the latter, though both are crucial for health.

Also read: Processed: Pakistan's unhealthy trend

What most people don’t realise, however, is that due to the nature of unsaturated fats, they are also far more unstable, fragile and prone to damage from high heat and light due to their low smoke (or burn) points.

So when we use unsaturated fats for high heat cooking or frying, we’re eating oil that has turned rancid and is actually damaging to our overall health. To make matters worse, oils such as canola or corn are highly refined, which means they go through a lot of processing such as extraction at high heat using chemicals before they are put on the shelf.

While I have nothing against industrialisation or the use of technology to create more efficiencies, I have a problem when we use it to “fix” something that wasn’t broken in the first place, or in the name of pure profit.

—Creative commons
—Creative commons

At the time when they were introduced, shiny new products like vegetable oils and margarine were simply a great market opportunity; they were cheaper to make, had longer shelf lives and could misleadingly be marketed towards the “health-conscious” consumer.

The bottom line: feel free to take out that tub of ghee that’s reserved for special occasions and use it to cook your daily meals. But this time around, just try to use a little less.


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