It’s high in calories. It clogs up your arteries. It makes you obese. It’s just bad for you.
It helps digestion. It builds up the immune system. It improves memory power. It’s great for you.
Ghee adds a dash of controversy to the debate on healthy eating. Ayurveda’s superfood has been a part of Indian cuisine for centuries. Until just a couple of generations ago, grandmothers in kitchens across Kerala, lovingly added a lavish dollop of ghee into hot payasams to enhance the flavour. They were firm in the belief handed over to them through generations steeped in the wisdom of Ayurveda, that ghee aided digestion and would help the body to process the rich dessert. Chappatis, made incredibly soft by the ghee smeared on them, were relished by children in every home. Mothers were convinced that it was the ghee that kept coughs and colds at bay by strengthening their immune systems.
But over the years, ghee disappeared from our kitchen shelves. The culprit is its nutritional composition. Composed almost entirely of fat, ghee has been declared to be bad for the heart. A tablespoon of ghee has around 135 calories and includes 15 grams of total fat and 9 grams of saturated fat. This is 45 percent of the recommended daily value. A tablespoon of ghee also has 45 milligrams of cholesterol, which is 15 percent of the daily value. Doctors discourage its consumption and payasams bereft of the heavenly taste of ghee and dry chappatis are the norm in most homes.
But there is now a new twist to this food saga. The story has come full circle. The ban on ghee in our daily diet is slowly disappearing as research shows that ghee may actually be helpful in keeping us fit and healthy – something that Ayurveda has consistently maintained over the ages. Modern science has now come to the conclusion that some fat is needed for a healthy and fit life. Approximately 20-35 percent fat in the daily calories is essential to preserve the structure of cell membranes. It also enables our body to absorb nutrients and strengthens the immune system.
Benefits of Ghee
Ayurveda uses ghee’s richness and high fat content to benefit the body. Ayurveda classifies ghee as being cold in nature with a sweet aftertaste. It is also defined as oily (snigda), soft (mrdu) and heavy (guru). Ghee’s oily nature keeps the digestive tract well lubricated. The softness nourishes the tissues and sense organs. The sweet aftertaste stimulates growth and immune activity; it also creates a feeling of satisfaction and contentment in the body and mind. That is why our grandmothers used to ensure that ghee was added to every plate of rice. The idea was that a meal should leave one feeling replete, content and happy. This is essential for our well being.
All the ancient Ayurveda treaties extol the virtues of ghee, especially cow ghee. The classical Charaka Samhita states that cow ghee helps in pacifying imbalanced vatta and pitta. The text instructs that cow ghee be used to help improve eye sight and longevity, give strength to the weak, enhance complexion and fertility, add lustre and tenderness to the body, sharpen memory, intelligence, digestion and functioning of the sense organs.
Healing with Ghee
Ghee has the quality of healing, known as Ropana. In ancient India, ghee was often used to heal wounds, ulcers and burns. It is also used in panchakarma treatments. In Netra Basti, a treatment used to treat irritated or sore eyes, a small well made of wheat dough is built around the eyes. The well is then filled with ghee. The soft, dense and heavy nature of the ghee soothes and heals the eye, bringing much relief to patients. A mixture of ghee and water known as shata dahuta ghrita is used to heal burns and scars including those of chicken pox and herpes.
Ghee is also used extensively in preparation of Ayurvedic medicines. This is because ghee is considered to be an excellent anupama (vehicle). Medicinal herbs are mixed with ghee and applied or ingested as prescribed. The ghee helps to carry the herbs to the deepest tissues of the body, thus helping in increased efficacy of the medicine and faster recovery. A research paper titled, The effect of ghee (clarified butter) on serum lipid levels and microsomal lipid peroxidation, states that “ Proper digestion, absorption, and delivery to a target organ system are crucial in obtaining the maximum benefit from any therapeutic formulation; the lipophilic action of ghee facilitates transportation to a target organ and final delivery inside the cell since the cell membrane also contains lipid. A study that compared different forms of herbs and herb extracts found that the efficacy increased when they were used with ghee, compared to usage in powder or tablet form.”
The Older the Ghee, the Greater the Efficiency
The older the ghee, the greater is its potency as a healing, therapeutic and medicinal agent. Ghee stored in air-tight iron or mud pots for a period of one to ten years is known as Purana Ghrita. Ghee which is stored for more than 10 years is known as Pra-purana Ghrita. In addition to increased potency, old ghee was used to treat mental ailments. In times when people believed that body and souls could be possessed by evil spirits, old ghee was used for exorcisms. Ghee which has been stored for more than 100 years is called as Khuma Sarpi while ghee stored for more than 110 years is known as Mahaghrita. The Mahaghrita has tremendous healing powers.
One of the reasons people do not include ghee in their diet is the fear that it could cause weight gain. Ayurveda too cautions overweight people from consuming too much ghee. But given its long list of benefits, perhaps it’s time for us to shed the guilt and enjoy eating our food with a dollop of delicious ghee!