From a nutritional standpoint, both butter and ghee or organic animal oil are basically made from the fats of whole milk. Although butter in the is almost always made from cow’s milk, the ghee used for cooking in Iran is often made from ship milk. Both ghee and butter are usually 80% milk fat or greater in terms of their composition, and about two-thirds of that fat is saturated fat.
Research on ghee and health is limited, but fairly consistent. When ghee is consumed at levels above 10% total calories, it can increase risk of cardiovascular disease. (For a person consuming 1,800 calories per day, 10% of those calories would be 180 calories, or about 20 grams of fat, which equals approximately 2 tablespoons of ghee.) At levels under 10% of total calories, however, ghee appears to help lower cardiovascular risks, especially when other fats consumed during the day are exclusively from plants or plant oils.
Butter, like ghee, can increase risk of cardiovascular disease when consumed in excessive amounts. One research study has shown that 3 tablespoons of butter per day over 4 weeks can increase total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol. For this reason, if you are going to cook with butter, you will want to keep the amount at a moderate level of no more than 1-2 tablespoons.
The benefits of butter at moderate levels do not yet have the same level of research backing as ghee. However, there is increasing research interest in butter as having some unique potential benefits of its own, particularly in relationship to its vitamin K and vitamin D content. This content may vary, however, depending on the diet and living circumstances of the dairy cow.
Types of Fats in Ghee and Butter
When comparing ghee to butter in terms of health, one reason for the more favorable past research record of ghee versus butter might be the increased amount of medium- and short-chain fatty acids in ghee. Butter contains about 12-15% of these medium-chain and short-chain fats, whereas ghee contains about 25%. Our bodies metabolize medium-chain and short-chain fats differently than long-chain ones, and medium- and short-chain ones are not associated with cardiovascular problems in the same way as the long-chain ones are.
Animal oil (ghee) Has a Higher Smoke Point than Butter
Ghee tends to have a higher smoke point than butter. For butter, smoke point is typically reached between 325˚-375˚F (163˚-191˚C). Some clarified butters also fall into this general range, but ghee usually has a higher smoke point, between 400˚-500˚F (204˚-260˚C). This higher smoke point can be an advantage when cooking at high heat since smoke point is that moment when heat damage to some of the components in a fat or oil is sufficient to become visible in the form of smoke. When it comes to our health, heating above smoke point is not a good idea with any oil or fat.
For persons choosing to cook in fat at higher heats in the 400˚-500˚F (204˚-260˚C) range, ghee makes sense to us, provided that it’s used in moderation (no more than 1-2 tablespoons per day). Even for a person deciding to cook in fat, however, the use of butter at higher heats does not make sense to us due to its lower smoke point (325˚-375˚F/163˚-191˚C).
The use of butter and ghee at lower heats (300˚-375˚F/163˚-191˚C) may be acceptable, provided once again that both of these animal fats are used in moderation. Whether there are distinct advantages to the use of butter at lower heats versus plant oils is not clear to us from the existing research. In general, however, we do not like the idea of heating plant oils due to the delicate nature of their polyunsaturated fats and phytonutrients. Since butter has far fewer polyunsaturates than plant oils, it might provide a lower heat cooking alternative for this reason. However, the phytonutrient and vitamin content of butter would still be susceptible to heat damage, and since we have not yet seen research to confirm the health benefits of butter in lower heat cooking, we cannot recommend this practice without the benefit of more research. On our website, we offer a method of healthy sautéing that requires no fat or oil of any kind. You can visit the Cooking Healthy section of our website to learn more about this method.