If you’re new to the Paleo community, you may be hearing about ghee for the first time. Or perhaps you’re a seasoned pro and you use it regularly, or have yet to try it because you heard it isn’t Paleo. As nutritionists at Paleo Plan, we wanted to give you a practical guide to ghee — what it is, whether it is or isn’t Paleo, and if we recommend using it.
First of all, what is ghee? Ghee is, in theory, pure butterfat. Commercial butter in the United States is comprised of about 80% butterfat, 15-20% water, and 1-5% milk solids. Similar to clarified butter, ghee is made by heating butter to the point where the milk solids (carbohydrates and proteins) separate away from the fat component. The milk solids are then removed leaving behind a golden yellow liquid consisting of pure fat (butterfat). The reason we say that ghee is pure butterfat “in theory” is because it’s not uncommon (especially in homemade ghee) for trace amounts of milk solids to remain in the final product.
While the terms ‘ghee’ and ‘clarified butter’ are often used interchangeably, they aren’t exactly the same thing. The main difference between clarified butter and ghee is that the milk solids in ghee are cooked long enough to caramelize (before they are removed), which imparts a nutty flavor to the final product. When making clarified butter, the cooking process is stopped before caramelization occurs, yielding a more neutral flavor. Our nutritionist Aimee McNew explains that “ghee has a milder flavor than butter and since it’s derived from animals (not plants), it lacks the distinctive flavors that plant-based oils often possess (coconut, olive, etc).”
Since the milk solids are the most heat-sensitive component of butter, removing them increases the smoke point of butter, that is, the highest temperature that you can safely heat up a fat or oil before it starts to oxidize and burn. The smoke point of butter is 350F, but when you remove the milk solids to make ghee, the smoke point increases significantly…to 450F or more! Ghee has a higher smoke point than most other Paleo-friendly fats (including lard and tallow), making it a versatile cooking fat that is often utilized in higher-temperature cooking.
What are the health benefits of ghee?
Ghee produced from high quality grass-fed butter is an appreciable source of health-promoting saturated and polyunsaturated fats (short-, medium-, and long-chain) as well as some hard to come by fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Our registered dietitian Sally Johnson explains that “ghee can be a very good source of beneficial substances such as hard-to-get Vitamin K2 which reduces the risk of both osteoporosis and heart disease, and the anti-inflammatory saturated fatty acid butyrate as well as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which may reduce heart disease and cancer risk.”
Is Ghee Paleo?
Butter and ghee are both hotly debated in the Paleo community, and that’s primarily because these foods are technically dairy products….and as we all know, dairy is not Paleo. However, removing the milk solids from butter makes ghee a food that in our experience, is well-tolerated by individuals who otherwise do not digest dairy products well. Our nutritionist Kinsey Jackson explains that “the major allergens found in dairy products (i.e. lactose, whey, etc.) are contained in the carbohydrate and protein components (the milk solids) of dairy, not in the fat portion. That being said, some people feel better removing all dairy products from their diets, including ghee (such as folks with autoimmune disorders, allergies, or severe dairy intolerance). Perhaps this is because trace amounts of milk solids may still be present in even the most carefully crafted ghee.”
Considering that people can be sensitive to a food without knowing it, we do recommend that people ‘challenge dairy’ at some point in their Paleo journey. This means removing all dairy products (including butter and ghee) from the diet for at least a month, and then reintroducing them back one at a time (‘challenging’ them back into your diet) to test for any hidden food sensitivities. Taking a break from all dairy gives the body (and the immune system) a chance to ‘reset’ and when reintroduced later, can give a definitive answer as to whether or not there is a sensitivity present. This is called an elimination-provocation challenge, and it remains the gold standard for identifying food allergies.
The bottom line is that individual needs and health conditions should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to include ghee in your Paleo diet. That’s why we don’t offer a 100% yes or no answer as to whether or not ghee is Paleo.
The good news about ghee is that it’s another nutritious and versatile fat source that is well-tolerated by many. Our nutritionists agree that high quality ghee made from pastured (grass-fed) butter can be a great addition to a Paleo diet, that is, if a person has determined that they are indeed not sensitive to it.
Despite the ongoing debate about whether or not ghee is Paleo, you’ll find it listed as an ingredient in some of our Paleo recipes that we think taste best when ghee is used. If you’re avoiding ghee, simply substitute another Paleo-friendly fat such as lard or coconut oil in these recipes instead. One of the great things about Paleo is the importance placed on consuming a wide array of quality fats in the diet, which is why we believe that ghee can be another healthy option for adding variety to many people’s Paleo or Primal diets.
How to Make (or Buy) Ghee
It’s really easy to make ghee at home. Rendering ghee from butter is a quick and simple process, and it’s also a lot cheaper than buying it at the store. Basically, you heat up butter until it separates into two parts: 1) the milk solids (white clumpy chunks) and 2) the pure butterfat (the golden yellow liquid that is not the white clumpy chunks). When it cools down, the golden yellow liquid (the ghee) solidifies and can be used as a cooking oil anywhere you would use butter.
We recommend rendering ghee from grass-fed butter, since conventional butter comes from cows that are generally not healthy. You can also buy ghee in the store, which may be a better option for those of you who are super dairy-sensitive (since DIY can result in traces of milk solids left in your final product). Store bought ghee is more expensive than making your own, but we do love the Tin Star brand of grass-fed ghee products. Traditional ghee uses unsalted butter, but in our experience, making ghee works just as well using salted butter. Here’s an easy ghee recipe to get you started:
So…to ghee or not to ghee…that is the question! You’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not you should include ghee in your diet, perhaps after doing an elimination challenge with dairy. But if you ask us…our vote would be to ghee!! :)