What Is Ghee — and Is It Actually Healthy?

Is eating ghee actually beneficial, or is the ingredient just fancy butter? Everything you need to know, here.

glass jar of ghee with a portioned tablespoon of ghee balancing on top
Photo: Getty Images.

You're likely to have heard about ghee by now, as what once seemed like a trendy ingredient has found staying power on the shelves of your go-to grocery store. But you may have some lingering skepticism about the potential health benefits of adding the spread to your meals. This makes sense, as ghee is basically a fancier term for butter...right? Well, not exactly.

Here's everything you need to know about ghee: what it is, whether it's good for you, and how (or if) you should be eating it.

What Is Ghee?

Having roots in Ayurvedic medicine, a type of holistic medicine from India, ghee has been widely popular in Indian cuisine for centuries. Similar to ashwagandha (aka Indian ginseng), which has been used medicinally in the region for hundreds of years, the ingredient is a food staple worldwide, even if it might be relatively new to you.

Put simply, ghee is a type of clarified butter; "clarified" means it's been heated and purified. In a way, it is butter — except all of the milk and water solids have been cooked off. This is why it doesn't need to be refrigerated as is required for the stick of plain old butter in your fridge. The clarification process also leads to a more flexible structure and results in a nutty flavor that's distinct from its non-clarified counterpart. And no, ghee isn't vegan; it's typically made with cow's milk (sorry, plant-based eaters!).

If you're a whiz in the kitchen, you'll be impressed with ghee's ability to withstand high temperatures during cooking. Ghee has a smoke point of 450°F, while butter and coconut oil come in at 350°F. Why, exactly? Because it's pure butterfat — the natural fat found in milk, butter, and other dairy products. So if you want a thicker coating on your veggie stir-fry, you can easily add some ghee to the wok and crank up that dial, notes Vanessa Rissetto, R.D., the co-founder and CEO of Culina Health, a nutrition care platform.

Ghee Nutrition Facts

With all the buzz about its possible health benefits (more on the specifics in a minute), ghee has made its way to mainstream cooking in the U.S., notes Rissetto. Therefore, it's only natural for you to want to get a sense of ghee's nutrition facts before picking up a tub. You'll probably notice the spread's fat content, which is pretty high. High fat content isn't always something to worry about — the body needs it, and good fats do exist — but ghee's fat is saturated, which is the kind you want to eat in moderation. For this reason, portion control is key.

Here's the nutritional profile for 1 tablespoon (about 14 grams) of clarified butter, aka ghee, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • 123 calories
  • 14 grams fat
  • 0 grams fiber
  • 0 grams carbohydrate
  • <1 gram protein
  • 0 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Ghee

So is ghee really the better version of butter? Let's look at the health benefits of the clarified concoction:

May Improve Heart Health

"Ghee is rich in short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids and butyrate, which can improve heart health and lower insulin resistance," according to natural medicine doctor Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S. And there is evidence that these medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are preferable to its longer-chain cousins as they are more easily digested, meaning they offer up more readily usable energy for your body instead of being stored as fat. (Bulletproof keto coffee, which adds in some butter or ghee, is popular for this reason.)

However, it's important to note that the fat in both butter and ghee is mostly less desirable saturated fat. "Butter contains 12 to 15 percent medium- and short-chain fatty acids, while ghee contains 25 percent or greater," says Axe, which may explain why some experts say ghee is less of a detriment to your cardiovascular health than butter.

Helps Your Body Absorb Nutrients

Ghee is also high in fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, and E, notes Axe. This is important because fat-soluble vitamins need fat for the body to properly absorb them, and since ghee also provides the fat, it offers up double-duty nutrition. What's more, those with a gluten sensitivity or an autoimmune disease such as Crohn's can have trouble absorbing vitamin A, so adding ghee to meals could help boost that intake, suggests Axe.

Lower In Lactose

Heating and clarifying butter greatly reduces the lactose, so if you're lactose intolerant, have a dairy sensitivity, or just choose to limit your dairy intake, ghee is a practical alternative for those who still want that rich, creamy texture that butter offers, says Rissetto. But ghee does have some great digestive benefits even for those who don't have sensitivities. "Ghee is rich in butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid that nourishes the cells of the intestines, so it can heal the digestive tract," explains Rissetto.

May Improve Metabolic Health

To kick the benefits up a notch, go for grass-fed varieties of ghee, says Axe. Grass-fed ghee has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may offer heart protection and reduce inflammation, among other benefits, he says. In fact, one 2015 study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine did find a potential link between CLA and better heart and metabolic health.

Potential Risks of Ghee

As ghee is high in saturated fat, it shouldn't be eaten in excess, so portion control is key, advises Rissetto, who recommends sticking to 1/2 a tablespoon for a serving. "Too much saturated fat can clog your arteries and cause cardiovascular disease," she explains. So instead of sticking ghee in every recipe — from brownies to baked chicken — make the swap in moderation. Otherwise, stick to heart-healthy olive oil when you can.

How to Buy and Eat Ghee

Since ghee doesn't need to be refrigerated, you won't find it in the dairy section with the rest of the butter products. Instead, head over to the cooking aisle, where you'll find it amongst the oils, usually in a jar. When you get it home, store your ghee in an area away from sunlight or heat, such as in your kitchen cupboard. Once opened, it should keep for about six months.

Not sure how to incorporate ghee into your kitchen routine? Well, there are endless options — try these:

On your toast. Ah, buttered toast. A classic. Mix it up by turning it into ghee toast.

As a baking substitute. Since ghee has such a high smoke point, it's great as a substitute for coconut oil when you're baking, suggests Rissetto.

For sautéing. Again, that high smoke point comes in handy here. Elevate your dinners by using ghee next time you're sautéing your veggies (maybe broccoli leaves?) or protein — that nutty flavor will make your efforts even more delicious.

In soups and sauces. That nutty flavor? Give it some space to shine. Try adding ghee to stir-fry sauces, dressings, soups, or stews to add a new depth of flavor.

On your popcorn. Who doesn't love movie theater popcorn? Give your homemade version an MCT boost by adding a drizzle of melted ghee.

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