Thursday, February 23, 2012

What's the deal with Ghee?

This is part 4 of a 7 part series on Misconceptions about Ayurveda and Yoga.
To view the Introduction, click here

Ghee--the golden elixir of India. The food of the gods. Those invested in the Ayurvedic system praise its many uses and qualities. Ghee makes the voice soft and melodious. It is thought to improve virility and give strength. It prolongs life. It increases intelligence and memory. 

Among yogis, ghee is recommended to soften tight muscles and lubricate the joints. It increases concentration and calms the mind. Some practitioners even drink ghee in order to “ground” their energy after a difficult practice. It's even thought that certain yoga practices cannot be done unless ghee is included in the diet.
If you listen to the stories, ghee is the cure-all.

Aged ghee is thought to be an even more powerful healing agent. Ghee as old as 100 years is used for ailments as varied as alcoholism and epilepsy.
One story passed around is of a yoga teacher who was severely burned after a pressure cooker exploded. He was rushed to the hospital where the doctors said he had third degree burns and would suffer severe scarring. The clever yogi refused all medication offered by the doctor, and instead rubbed his wounds with ghee. Six days later the burns had completely healed, with no scarring.
The growth of western interest in Hinduism and yoga has brought a certain veneration of ghee into the modern yoga world. But is there any validity behind the impressive qualities prescribed to ghee?

So where does this butter obsession come from?
It comes from India, obviously. But Indians weren’t the only ones to consume ghee. Ghee by other names was historically consumed in societies throughout Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East and northern Africa (Samna).  Ghee was of particular importance among the pastoral tribes in Africa, such as the Maasai (Kamaek).
Ghee is essentially unsalted butter that has been cooked at high heat to separate the solid milk particles from the fat. It is an incredibly rich food, being about 80% fats by composition. Two-thirds of that fat is saturated. But more than just a cooking oil, Ghee has certain mystical associations that derive from its role in the Hindu religion. 
Hindus worship the cow. All cows everywhere are descendants of a celestial cow, which came from heaven for the benefit of the world and brought with it the gift of ghee. Everything from the cow is considered to have purifying qualities – including its urine and dung. Concoctions of excrement, urine, ghee and milk are suggested for detoxification or as cures for poisoning. It is also suggested that women drink cow dung mixed with water in the days following their menstrual cycle, to cleanse them of impurities. Unlike the use of ghee, this is a practice that has not yet taken off in western yoga communities.

Eat my S***
In temples ghee is often used in place of oil to light lamps, and ghee is poured over devotional statues as a form of offering. It is also important for bathing and anointing rituals.

Ayurvedic and yogic websites writing on the topic of ghee, like to quote the Rg Veda’s praise of butter as evidence of ghee’s particularly holy or magical character. Both milk and ghee are mentioned in the Rg Veda, a Sanskrit text dated to about 4,000 years ago and thought to be divinely inspired. A collection of hymns dedicated to various deities, the Rg Veda also deals extensively with Soma Ritual.
Ghee and milk were important aspects of the Soma ritual. Soma was both a god and a hallucinatory plant. It was pressed to release juice, which was then mixed with heated ghee and milk. Over time, the original soma plant was either forgotten or went extinct, and other plants were substituted into the Soma ritual. Ghee and milk continued to play an important role. In his book “Pinnacles of India’s Past: selections from the Rig Veda”, Walter H. Maurer writes; “Here the Ghee is identified with the Soma. […] Since the ghee is identified with the Soma, the Ghee too, is said to have obtained the status of the drink of immortality” (296). Could it be that the ancient rishis had a similar appreciation for butter as hippies everywhere today?
Regardless of whether ghee was a part of the ancient drug scene, ghee’s sanctity continues in Ayurvedic and yogic circles, and influences thoughts about diet and healing. Ghee is believed to be helpful for nearly everything. Have allergies? Put ghee up your nose. Have dark circles under your eyes? Rub ghee on your skin. Constipated? You haven’t eaten enough ghee.
Proponents of Ayurveda tend to attribute ghee’s multi-faceted qualities to abstract metaphysical properties. This leads to book and internet sites packed with slews of nebulous terminology attempting to describe these vague properties. Consider this diagram, explaining why ghee contains the most Sattvic properties of any other food.

The author of this site might understand his idea, but it seems his ideas are not concrete enough to be communicated to anyone else.
Even the preparation of ghee is a mystical experience. The making of proper ghee requires more than butter and heat. Ghee absorbs certain energies from its makers, it stores vibrations from sound, and it apparently gathers different healing powers on certain days of the lunar cycle.
Ancient Organic Ghee, a company that manufacturers ghee, describes the mystical techniques they feel make their ghee top quality. "We make our ghee almost always on the full moon. The Full moon is when the qualities of Soma are at their height and it is also the traditional day of making ghee in the Vedic tradition. Also, we chant and play the Mahamrtunjaya Mantra before, during and after the making of the ghee (all day). We are Ayurvedic practitioners as well as having a spiritual practice in the Vedic tradition.”
The making of ghee is not like making any other food; it is a spiritual ritual in itself. Ghee transforms into more than a semi-liquid golden cream, it becomes a conduit for God. At this point, the use of ghee is no longer a decision rationally motivated by medicinal properties, but an act of religion.
That ghee was made on the day when Soma is most powerful seems like more incriminating evidence that the ancient rishis may have had a taste for brownies.

So what’s the real deal on Ghee?
Science isn’t much help. Very little research has been done on the medicinal properties of ghee. What research there is suggests that since ghee contains nutrients such as riboflavin, vitamin K and vitamin A, it may be helpful with skin conditions. If this is the case, any other source of vitamins applied topically would have a similar effect. As far as what science has revealed about ghee’s place in diet, ghee would not make the Surgeon General’s list of top 10 healthiest foods.
Ghee is butter without carbohydrate or protein. It is almost entirely fat, and is therefore more calorically dense than butter. More importantly, the concentration of fat means that ghee contains 12% more saturated fat than butter. And saturated fat is not generally thought of as a good thing, unless one is following the Primal Diet.
Check it out:

Saturated fat has long been linked to elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease. If the fat count of ghee isn’t enough to scare you away from traditional Indian food, India now suffers the highest rate of diabetes in the world, and ranks far above the United States as far as rate of mortality by heart disease. Recent research on heart disease in the United Kingdom notes higher than normal rates of atherosclerosis and high cholesterol among Indian immigrants. They've linked this finding to ghee consumption.
Nutritionists recommend no more than 2 tablespoons of ghee per day (1 oz). This accounts for about 10% of calories on a 2,000 calorie/day diet. 
So it seems that the scientific experts would not agree with this statement from a Hare Krishna website: “Even the richest ghee-laden and ghee-fried foods can be eaten in great quantities, and do not ruin one's energy for the remainder of the day, or the next, as feast preparations cooked in lesser oils are likely to do” ( 
However, Ghee does have some good qualities that make it a better option than butter. The elimination of the solid milk particles (which contain carbohydrates like lactose and proteins like casein) means that ghee is virtually free of lactose. This is good news for the 70% of the world’s population that is lactose intolerant; ghee is a better alternative than butter.
Since ghee lacks the carbohydrates and proteins of butter, it has a much longer shelf life. Being mostly saturated fat, it is extremely stable and is much less likely to go rancid than butter, especially in hot weather. This would explain its popularity throughout warm climates. In addition, ghee’s stability makes it better than other oils for high heat cooking. Ghee’s smoke point – the point at which the fats are damaged- is between 400-500 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, olive oil starts smoking around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
To sum up the deal on ghee:
Ghee is great if:
  • ·        You want to fry your food
  • ·        You are lactose intolerant but don’t want to fully give up dairy products
  • ·        You live in a warm climate and don’t own a refrigerator
  • ·        You need calorie dense food to survive
  • ·        You have dry skin and don’t want to use lotion or coconut oil
  • ·        You are a traveling Brahmin (Brahmin’s are only allowed raw foods from castes beneath them, unless the food contains ghee).
So although ghee aficionados may believe the magic milk product is a boon to humanity - a gift from the divine celestial cow - prudence indicates that ghee should be treated like any other saturated fat: eaten in moderation or avoided. Unless, of course, you are Krishna reincarnate. Then please, go ahead and eat whatever Your Awesomeness wants.

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