The Skinny on Fat: Why is Ghee Back on the Menu?
By Amber Malik| Nutritionist and Holistic Chef
Just the mere mention of ‘ghee’ conjures up images of regretful Indian takeaways: excessively oily, a ‘morning after’ mistake and no friend to your waistline.
So why do many wellness practitioners seem to be raving about ghee right now and touting its benefits? Why has ghee become highly fashionable in the last couple of years and why are all nutritionists worth their dollar raving about it?
First, we need some background info so let’s rewind a few years and talk about fat. For several decades now, we’ve been told to avoid dietary fat. Mainstream nutritional advice has claimed dietary fat equals bodily fat and contributes to heart problems. Since the 1980s especially, fat has been the enemy and the low-fat craze has taken society by storm. So why have obesity rates and heart disease cases continued to rise? Because the advice is wrong. As wrong as the advice was from medics and scientists decades ago that smoking was healthy and in no way contributed to lung cancer.
In 2015, after at least sixty years of research showing there was no scientific basis for the recommendation to cut fat from our diets in the first place, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee finally overturned the advice. The problem is that this issue is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s difficult to accept. And even more problematic is that official sources, such as the average GP or the NHS or heart associations, are still continuing to encourage limits on dietary fat whilst simultaneously promoting ‘low-fat’ products. Part of the research that led to the overturning of the advice was that these ‘low-fat’ food products were actually the real cause behind soaring obesity and heart disease rates. The fats in foods are replaced with sugars and refined carbohydrates, which have been found to have a greater link to ‘fat’ related illnesses. Scientists and researchers have even gone so far as to claim that the blanket ban on all fat has been one of the most detrimental things to impact our health ever.
The reason why official sources continue to give outdated information is because of the intricate web of getting the right information out to the masses: medical students need to be taught the new information as part of their education so that those who become GPs can advise their patients correctly, then the institutions and organisations that back that medical advice can change accordingly too, then mainstream media will also alter to the correct information, and then it will become common knowledge. As you can imagine, this can take decades; not least because medical students receive only 2-3 hours of education in nutrition throughout all their years in school, which is not long enough to cover any more than extremely basic information. It’s certainly more logical to look to a quality dietician or wellness practitioner who constantly researches up-to-date information and current scientific guidelines for advice about food. And for several years now, the consensus amongst such professionals has been: the war on fat must end!
Thanks to social media and the Internet, the fat revolution has taken off quicker than it otherwise would have; certainly quicker than the ‘smoking can cause lung cancer’ revolution that took decades to become mainstream knowledge after official statements were made, due to the reasons outlined above. Avocados and coconut oil were the trendiest foods of 2016. Fat (and dietary cholesterol) found naturally in foods like egg yolks are definitely back on the menu, and some sources claim that red meat and butter – in slightly lesser amounts than fat-rich plant foods – should be too. BUT. (Of course there was a ‘but’ coming!) All fats are not created equal and knowing that they shouldn’t be avoided isn’t carte blanche to tuck into all kinds of fat without any thought. The world of fat is still complicated; still awash with conflicting information. Which oils are good? Do good fats become bad fats when heated? How to recognise trans fats and avoid them? (Trans fats are still most definitely the bad guys.) Are some saturated fats good and others bad? How do we source real olive oil if most on the supermarket shelves is fake?
As a basic rule of thumb, fat that nature created and is consumed by you in that pure state is ok; fat that’s been messed around with by man is not. This includes margarines and other ‘heart healthy’ spreads that are only one molecule away from being plastic and can be far more detrimental to health than simple, organic, grass-fed butter. And, as usual, all processed foods and pastries are best avoided. To cover all the areas of dietary fat would require information here that’d take hours to read, so the focus of this particular post is the subject most people question me about: “What fat should I cook with?”
Healthful oils like pure olive oil and avocado oil lose many benefits when heated to high temperatures, so they’re not the best to cook with. They’re better consumed raw ON food. It seems like every article covering this topic joyfully tells you that coconut oil is the answer and life in the kitchen is good again. But what if you’re like me and don’t like the taste of your dinner cooked in coconut oil?! I love making sweet things such as pancakes with coconut oil but I can’t stand it with my omelettes or vegetables or roast potatoes. Enter: ghee.
“Really, ghee? Get outta here!” you might be thinking. Those images of Friday night Indian takeaways come rushing back and you throw up a little in your mouth. But hear me out.
Ghee is clarified butter: butter is slowly warmed on a gentle heat for as long as possible so that the milk solids separate from the fat. The milk solids are removed and the ghee left behind is a product of great purity and stable at room temperature. It doesn’t burn quickly when used in cooking like butter does. Even though it’s technically a dairy product, some people with lactose-sensitive issues find they tolerate ghee because of the removal of milk solids. It’s made up of medium-chain fatty acids so it’s easier to digest and absorbs directly into the liver to serve as an exceptional energy source. It’s high in butyric acid which positively impacts immune function and inflammation, especially with issues relating to the gut. Studies have shown a link between consumption of ghee and the increase of GOOD cholesterol in blood. It’s even been used as part of Ayurvedic detox programmes to help with weight loss; and it contains vitamins A, E, K2 and beneficial omega 3s.
However, these benefits only apply to ghee that comes from a high-quality dairy source: that means butter from cows eating grass and an organic diet, and living a lifestyle free from growth hormones and antibiotics. Most of the ghee bought in shops does not come from such sources; even worse, it doesn’t even come from a dairy source at all and is instead a processed, refined product made from vegetable oils. Ironically, despite ghee originating in Asia, buying it from Asian shops is most likely to get you the worst quality, harmful product available. The stuff you find in Indian takeaways and restaurants IS the bad stuff because it’s cheap. Rising heart disease in Asian communities is certainly related to consumption of wrongly made ghee.
So what’s the solution? Buying organic, grass-fed butter (raw if you can get it) and making your own ghee is unbelievably easy and the most sure-fire route to a pure product. All you need to do is heat the butter gently in a saucepan and let it simmer until you’ve removed all the white, foamy bubbles that come to the surface. Then strain it through a muslin cloth and voila. If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are now great quality ghees available to purchase. Never buy any ghee that says ‘vegetable ghee’ or ‘vanaspati ghee’, even if the words ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ are irrelevantly thrown about on the label. Read the ingredients to see if it comes from a dairy source or a vegetable oil source. My favourite that I use every single day is Fushi Organic ghee – it’s won many Taste awards, the quality is exceptional and I even think it’s better than my Indian mum’s homemade ghee… but don’t tell her that!