Ladies and gents, there’s a new fat in town. Although it seems like coconut oil is still all the rage these days, there has been some movement on who’s the phattest fat. Meet “ghee.” aka the Sanskrit word for “sprinkled.”
Hailing from Asia, ghee is a popular oil used in Southeast Asian cooking. Ghee is clarified butter, which means that the milk solids have been removed from butter. This is achieved by melting butter so that the milk solids separate out from the fat solids. In addition to having a slightly nutty flavor, the smoke point of ghee (about 250 C/482 F) is much higher than most oils (200 C/392 F), which means that foods can be fried at higher temperatures when using ghee.
Aside from some differences in cooking outcomes, many have begun to tout the health benefits of ghee in nearly a similar fashion to what people have been saying about coconut oil. Dare I say that ghee is the “new coconut oil”? Well, it is true that there are some nutritional benefits that stem from ghee, but it also carries some obvious negatives. Ghee contains many fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, E, and K, and it is also high in saturated fat. So will it magically make you shed pounds, instantly boost your immune system, and/or protect you from cancer like some flashy articles report?
The research literature surrounding ghee is sparse. In fact, to date, only two clinical trials have been conducted to test the health effects of ghee. Of the two clinical trials available on PubMed, one study found that supplementing ghee for nearly half of a person’s daily fat intake resulted in a significant rise in total serum cholesterol as well as a similar increase in HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol. As such, there is not a large body of research pointing to the health benefits of ghee.
So what’s with all the craze, then, if there isn’t much research? Well, it mainly stems from the concept surrounding medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that is found in coconut oil and ghee, which makes complete sense as to why ghee is receiving so much attention. Before we discuss what the heck an MCT is, let’s first discuss triglycerides. Fat is made up of triglycerides, which come in a variety of lengths, depending on how many carbon chains (the backbone of fat) are strung together. As you’d expect from the term “medium”, MCT are somewhere in the middle, containing six to 10 chains.
For coconut oil, much of the health halo centers on energy and weight loss; however, these findings need to be reported with context. For example, many beileve that the health benefits of coconut oil stem from the reported benefits of MCTs, yet only about six in 10 of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are MCTs. Further, it’s the type of MCT that matters when it comes to weight loss effects.
DeLany et al. found that a specific type of MCTs, capric acid and caprylic acid, is more efficiently metabolized and less likely to be stored as fat, yet these types of MCTs make up less than 15 percent of the MCT profile in coconut oil. Even more telling are the findings from a randomized, double-blind clinical trial that compared supplementation with coconut versus soybean oil among obese women. The researchers found no differences in body weight between groups.
Additionally, what most articles fail to reflect is that the effects seen are comparing fats that contain 100 percent MCTs versus 100 percent long chain triglycerides (LCTs), which is difficult to achieve in real life. Results from recent meta-analyses have assessed the effects of MCT on weight loss and body composition. Mumme and Stonehouse revealed that replacement of LCTs with MCTs potentially induced modest reductions in body weight and composition, but found that future, independent and well-designed studies are needed to solidify these findings. However, another meta-analysis from Bueno et al. concluded that the “recommendation to replace dietary LCTs with MCTs must be cautiously taken, because the available evidence is not of the highest quality.”
These two meta-analyses indicate that the MCT versus LCT debate is still ongoing and more research is needed, especially since it is unrealistic that people are receiving fats in the form of 100 percet MCT or 100 percet LCT. Until then, let’s stick to the tried-and-true science about dietary fat recommendations. This includes limiting saturated fat intake and focusing on the types of fats we eat by replacing saturated with mono- and polyunsaturated. Aim to have a good mix of dietary fats from a variety of sources like vegetable oils, nuts, fish, lean protein, and dairy that way you are sure you are focusing on type rather than total amounts.