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Ghee and butter contain large amounts of fats. For this reason, they were previously vilified as being bad for health. However, new research has shown that all fats are not the same. And good fats, when eaten in moderation, do not seem to increase the risk of chronic health problems like high cholesteroldiabetes and heart disease. In fact, in small portions, they can actually have a protective effect.

But, what is the better option: Ayurveda-endorsed ghee or butter?

It turns out that there isn't enough difference between the two to make one markedly better than the other. They both contain similar amounts of fats and vitamins.

This article examines the health benefits and disadvantages of each and then compares them. There are some differences—though they are not strictly nutritional—that can tip the scales for which one you should prefer. Those difference, too, have been listed below. So, read on.

  1. How are butter and ghee made?
  2. Benefits and side effects of butter
  3. Benefits and side effects of ghee
  4. Ghee versus butter: comparison
  5. Takeaways
Doctors for Ghee or butter, which is healthier for you?

Butter is a dairy product that is made by separating milk solids, or butterfat, from liquid milk. This is done by extracting the cream from the milk (heat the milk and let it sit for a while, to allow the cream to rise to the top), and then churning the cream to make white butter and buttermilk—the remaining liquid that settles at the bottom.

Churning accelerates the separation of fat and the remaining buttermilk is drained to leave butter behind. Butter is energy-dense and is one of the most concentrated forms of milk fat; 20 litres of milk are needed to make a kilogram of butter. The traditional churning process can take up to an hour. Water is added to the butter and it is further kneaded until it gives off more buttermilk.

Factory production is much faster and uses centrifugation to quickly separate milk solids from liquid in large quantities.

The natural colour of butter is white to yellow because of carotene and other pigments in it.

Ghee is known as clarified butter, as it is made by further modifying butter. Butter is heated until it begins to melt and the separated water evaporates. The vessel holding the butter is then allowed to cool, and eventually, a clear liquid appears at the top—this is ghee. It is strained and separated from the mixture, and the process of the gradual heating is repeated as desired, depending on the quantity of ghee required. 

(Read more: Cow ghee benefits)

The differences in production processes cause changes in the nutrient composition of the two fats. Ghee is more energy-dense since excess liquids are separated, but the difference is slight. Both contain roughly the same amount of fats and vitamins.

One major difference is that ghee does not contain milk solids, so those with lactose intolerance can have it without issues. Further, ghee has a longer shelf life and doesn’t spoil when kept out for several weeks. This makes it an attractive option in warmer climates and is perhaps why it became so popular in India. Here is a comparison of the nutrient information of the two dairy fats:

Nutritional comparison of 1 tablespoon each of butter and ghee
Category and unit Butter Ghee
Energy (kcal) 102 112
Total protein (g) 0.121 0.036
Total lipids (g) 11.5 12.7
Vitamin A (µg) 97.1 108
Vitamin E (mg) 0.329 0.358
Beta Carotene (µg) 22.4 24.7
Saturated fat (g) 7.17 7.93
Monounsaturated fat (g) 3.33 3.68
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 0.427 0.473
Cholesterol (mg) 30.5 32.8

Butter, and generally all foods composed mostly of fat, have got a bad reputation in the last several decades. Fats have been linked to heart disease and obesity that leads to cardiovascular complications. Fats are supposed to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad kind that clogs blood vessels)—this was the rationale for avoiding them.

However, these assumptions were based on predictive models of what fats could do to the body; several meta-analyses have retrospectively looked at the effects of fats in diets and found little to no correlation between butter consumption and cardiovascular disease.

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated—the kinds found in fish and flaxseed (omega-3 fats)—have been shown to have protective effects and may actually help you lose weight. Butter has both unsaturated and saturated fats. The debate around saturated fat is murkier. However, studies have shown that diets rich in dairy fats (the kind present in butter) actually had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 disease. Counterintuitive though it is, small quantities of butter may actually have protective effects against chronic issues like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes

How can dairy fats cause these effects? It turns out that cholesterol is more complicated than was earlier imagined. While it is true that saturated fats release LDL cholesterol, they also increase HDL cholesterol—which is the good kind of cholesterol. This means that a sort of balancing act is performed. Also, LDL cholesterol comes in two types as well; small, dense molecules or larger, fluffier ones. The latter is generally not harmful and this is the kind that dairy fat creates. 

A 2016 meta-analysis that looked at over 630,000 people found relatively small or neutral overall associations of butter with mortality, CVD, and diabetes. What this means is that butter may not be overtly "good" or "bad" and can be incorporated in diets in limited quantities without harm.

There are other benefits of butter consumption as well. Diets rich in dairy fat have been linked with lower liver and greater systemic insulin sensitivity. There is also evidence that fatty acids in dairy promote a healthier bacterial microbiome. This may have anti-inflammatory effects that lead to better gut health and may even lower the probability of getting Crohn’s Disease. 

(Read more: Liver disease)

Butter also contains a good amount of vitamin A, which has been linked to better immune function. Fats like the type derived from butter increase the "bioavailability" of certain vitamins and minerals meaning that allow the body to process them; without them, this wouldn’t be possible. 

Please note that nutritional studies are always based on comparisons and everyone reacts uniquely to different foods. These studies are observational and much more research is needed to understand the complex nature of the relationship between dairy fats and the human body.

There are many well understood adverse effects as well. Butter has been linked to weight gain—though the evidence is growing slightly conflicted. In any case, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are said to be better for weight loss—so olive oil and avocado oil may be a better choice if you are trying to lose weight. According to the World Health Organization, no more than 10% of your calories should come from saturated fats. 

In summary, moderate amounts of butter should have an overall neutral effect on your health. A balanced diet is more important to focus on rather than just one macronutrient. Butter should still be used sparingly though since it can lead to weight gain—polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats should be used as well to increase diversity.

Ghee is quite similar to butter so its effects on the body are considered to be similar as well. There have not been as many studies done on ghee, but the limited studies suggest that moderate consumption does not cause adverse health effects. 

A study involving rats found that a diet consisting of 10% ghee did not increase levels of harmful cholesterol enough to cause cardiovascular issues. However, in rats that were genetically predisposed to various diseases, the ghee-heavy diet did cause a harmful increase in triglycerides which increased the risk for heart disease.   

This small study illustrates that the quantity of ghee matters and also that ghee fat affects different people differently. 

Like butter, ghee has a high amount of vitamin A which can lead to better immune function, and it can increase the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals. (Read more: Immunity boosting foods)

A study on a rural population that consumed high amounts of ghee found a lower prevalence of cardiovascular diseases. 

The adverse health effects of ghee are similar to butter; while it may not increase harmful cholesterol in small doses, it can do so if overeaten. This can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

The big reveal is that the health benefits of both dairy products are very similar. They both contain roughly the same amount of fats, similar levels of vitamin A and vitamin E and both can increase the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals in the food. Ghee is slightly more nutrient-dense, but these differences are negligible. Their effects on blood cholesterol and heart diseases are similar. In moderation, both are tasty and add flavour to otherwise mundane food. 

There are some differences, though, that will be especially meaningful to some. For those who are lactose intolerant, ghee is easily the better choice. It lacks lactose and casein which are responsible for causing lactose intolerance; those with this problem can happily consume ghee. 

Ghee also has a higher smoking point than butter which makes it more suitable for cooking at higher temperatures. When oils begin to smoke, they become chemically less stable which promotes free radicals. 

Another big advantage that ghee has is longer shelf life. It can even be left outside the fridge and will not spoil. For many people, ghee is the more practical choice.

Baking is becoming more popular in India—and butter certainly works better for this since it has a richer, creamier flavour. Butter, therefore, has more utility when it comes to baking sweet confections.

Read more: What are antioxidants?

As mentioned above, the recent strides in our understanding of the potential benefits of butter apply to ghee as well. The cliche that everything in moderation is fine applies here; butter and ghee can be used sparingly for neutral or slight health benefits. Eating too much, though, can lead to chronic health conditions.

The meta-analyses suggested that whether you use butter or ghee does not make that much of a difference in health outcomes—as long as balanced diets were being followed. Focussing on one macronutrient is less important than focussing on your overall diet; if you cut fat out too much, carbohydrates will have to take over—and these now have been shown to have harmful effects in large amounts. Therefore, it is a better idea to eat varied meals and cut down on processed foods—if you are otherwise healthy, then this along with moderate exercise should be enough to keep you fit. 

Read more: Easy and effective stretches for the entire body

Dr Sanjay K Tiwari

Dr Sanjay K Tiwari

Ayurveda
3 Years of Experience

Dr. Yogesh Kumar

Dr. Yogesh Kumar

Ayurveda
12 Years of Experience

Dr. Priyanka Jha

Dr. Priyanka Jha

Ayurveda
2 Years of Experience

Dr. Anadi Mishra

Dr. Anadi Mishra

Ayurveda
14 Years of Experience

References

  1. USDA [Internet]. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; Ghee, clarified butter
  2. USDA [Internet]. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; Butter, stick, unsalted
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