To Ghee or Not to Ghee

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To Ghee or Not To Ghee | Phoenix Helix

“Things are not always what they seem.”
~ Phaedrus

Is Ghee a Healthy Fat for People with Autoimmune Disease?

I used to think the answer was a simple, “Yes.” After all, it’s promoted as being allergen-free and allowed on a number of healing protocols including The Whole 30, The Wahls Protocol and The GAPS Diet. When it’s made from organic and grass-fed butter, it’s nutrient-dense, containing many fat-soluble vitamins and beneficial fatty acids. In fact, when I did the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) back in 2012, I never removed ghee from my diet, even though it is supposed to be excluded on the AIP. I’m a questioner, and I don’t follow rules that don’t make sense to me. I figured it’s allergen-free and nutrient-dense, so why skip it? However, over the years, more and more people reached out to me to share their negative experiences with ghee. Many had autoimmune reactions, even though the allergens were purportedly removed. They wanted to know what was happening. So did I. I did my own test, removing ghee from my diet for 60 days, fully expecting to be able to reintroduce it successfully. Instead, after eating just 1 tablespoon with dinner, my wrist flared for the first time in years. So, clearly my body identified ghee as dairy as well. What’s going on?

What is Ghee and How is It Made?

Butter is typically composed of 80% fat, 15% water and 5% milk solids (with some slight variation in those percentages from batch to batch). Those milk solids contain lactose (the sugar in dairy) and casein and whey (the proteins in dairy). It’s the milk solids that are usually responsible for an allergic, digestive or autoimmune reaction to dairy. Milk has the highest lactose concentration, and cheese has the highest casein concentration, but all dairy contains some of each.

Ghee is made when butter is heated to its melting point and slowly simmered. The water evaporates and the milk solids drop to the bottom of the pan and turn brown. The liquid fat is then poured off and strained, and the milk solids are thrown away. This creates a shelf-stable fat that keeps well in hot climates, which is why it became a preferred cooking fat in tropical India. This is also why it’s considered to be allergen-free, but small amounts of trace proteins always remain.

What is Cultured Ghee?

There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet about cultured ghee. Some people have mistakenly reported that cultured ghee is fermented as a final step in the preparation process, which degrades and removes those trace proteins. This isn’t true. Cultured ghee is simply ghee made from cultured butter. Cultured butter separates more quickly during the cooking process and imparts a unique flavor to the ghee. However, any beneficial bacteria contained in the cultured butter are killed during the heating process, and the same trace proteins remain in the end, as with any other type of ghee. It’s not possible to culture ghee after it’s made, because fermentation requires sugar, and the sugar in butter (the lactose) has been removed during the ghee cooking process (which is why it’s certified lactose-free). So, cultured ghee isn’t a healthier choice; it’s just another flavor option.

What Are Ghee’s Potential Health Benefits

If ghee is made from organic, pastured butter, it contains:

That sounds fabulous! You can see why it’s included in many healing diets.

What Are Its Potentially Harmful Components

  • Trace Allergens – High quality ghee companies like Tin Star Foods and Pure Indian Foods have their ghee tested to be certified casein-free and lactose-free. The problem is that the lab equipment isn’t sensitive enough to pick up all the tiny particles that may remain. Here’s a quote from Pure Indian Foods: “Our ghee is batch tested to be no more than 0.25% lactose and 2.5 ppm casein/whey.” That’s as precise as lab equipment can get, and at this level, they’re allowed to call it 100% casein and lactose free. To give you a comparison, the standard for gluten-free labeling is less than 20ppm, so this is a very small amount milk solids remaining. However, just as there are “sensitive celiacs” who react to trace amounts of gluten, there are people sensitive enough to dairy to react to these trace amounts as well. In addition, the protein structure of gluten and dairy are close enough that the body can sometimes mistake one for the other (gluten cross-reactivity).
  • Hormones – We all know that conventional dairy contains added hormones, which is one of the reasons to avoid it. But did you know that raw, organic dairy contains 28 different hormones naturally, including sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone? This is because milk is designed to be food for a growing baby. It allows a calf to quickly develop and grow into a young adult. When we consume dairy, we are consuming hormones, and hormone imbalance is directly linked to autoimmune expression. It’s why many of us experience greater autoimmune symptoms close to our menstrual cycle. It’s also why some women go into remission during pregnancy and flare upon delivery, or develop autoimmune disease after menopause. Hormone shifts can cause autoimmune shifts, and while the milk solids have been removed from ghee, the hormones remain. Not only that, they remain in greater concentration than other forms of dairy.
  • Oxidized Cholesterol – When butter is heated to the level necessary to create ghee, some of its natural cholesterol becomes oxidized, and oxidized cholesterol is both cytotoxic and pro-inflammatory. Loren Cordain, one of the grandfathers of the Paleo movement, warns against ghee for this reason.
  • It’s Now Clear Why Ghee Is Excluded During the Elimination Phase of the AIP.

N=1 (The Art of the Self-Experiment)

If you read the health benefits of ghee above, it’s clear why ghee is often embraced as a superfood. If you read possible harmful components, you can see why some people react negatively. That’s where your own self-experiment comes in. We’re all unique. The truth is that people who don’t have autoimmune disease are unlikely to be harmed by ghee. There are many stories of people who are dairy-intolerant for other reasons, who find ghee to be the one dairy food they can eat. But when I polled the autoimmune community, I found something very different. The people with autoimmune disease who successfully reintroduced ghee where usually able to reintroduce other forms of dairy as well, including grass-fed butter, full-fat cream and sometimes even cheese. Those people who failed other dairy reintroductions (like me) also failed the ghee reintroduction. Our bodies are different than the general population, and clearly an autoimmune reaction to dairy is more sensitive than other types of reactions.

Should you try to reintroduce ghee? Yes, I think so. Just because some people react negatively doesn’t mean everyone does. That’s the beauty of the reintroduction process – finding out which foods are (and aren’t) your personal inflammation triggers. When well-tolerated, ghee is a delicious, nutritious cooking fat. Eliminate it from your diet for at least 30 days. When you are ready to reintroduce it, you can either make your own from grass-fed butter, or buy from a high-quality company like Pure Indian Foods, Tin Star Foods, or OMghee. Follow the reintroduction steps carefully, and watch how your body responds. If you reintroduce successfully, enjoy it, and I recommend trying to reintroduce high-quality butter next. If the reintroduction fails, I empathize. I miss ghee! Thankfully there are many other wonderful healthy fats to enjoy, like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, red palm oil, duck fat, lard, and tallow. Which is your favorite?

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57 thoughts on “To Ghee or Not to Ghee

  1. Pingback: To Ghee or Not to Ghee | Paleo Digest

      • But many bacteria involved in fermentation produce proteolytic enzymes that do break down casein along with the lactase that breaks down lactose. I liken fermentation of cows milk to hydrolyzed baby formula in which casein is broken down so that casein sensitive infants down have to digest it. I just read an article on pubmed that said that fermented baby formula was more tolerated in a study than even hydrolyzed formula. So cultured (fermented) provides more than naunced flavor differences. I am far from an expert but this is what I got from hours of reading before finally purchasing some cultured ghee, so please tell me if I’m wrong. (Also I do realize that fermentation likely does not eliminate casein and lactose completely.)

        • The problem Ann, is that when someone with autoimmune disease reacts to a food, it’s not a digestive issue. Instead, the body is misidentifying that protein as a foreign invader and launches its defenses. Fermentation doesn’t prevent this from happening. To an autoimmune body, casein is casein, whether fermented or not. Not everyone with autoimmune disease reacts negatively to dairy, but for those that do, fermentation doesn’t seem to make a difference. For the general population who don’t have autoimmune disease, however, fermentation can make dairy more easily tolerated. So your research isn’t wrong; it just doesn’t apply to people with autoimmune disease.

  2. I missed it terribly too during the elimination phase. When I reintroduced it I was surprised that I didn’t really enjoy the taste! At least not like I remembered loving it. For me it’s one of those occasional foods. I didn’t really notice any changes but I’ll have to “experiment” even closer now! Thanks, great article.

    • Isn’t it interesting how our taste buds change? That happened to me when I gave up butter. It didn’t have as much flavor as I remembered when I tried reintroducing.

  3. I was really curious as to why I was reacting to ghee on reintroduction, but now know why. Thank you Eileen, you are truly a blessing to us all.

  4. Really helpful post, thanks. I seem to do better without it (and all dairy) for healing psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, but I will use butter sometimes still occasionally without too much fanfare. My skin is the clearest it’s been in years (pain still a work in progress), and I also stopped drinking coffee last year so that may be an influence (found an amazing green tea at our co-op). So appreciative of your work, Eileen, thanks so much!

  5. Eileen, thank you for this very informative article. Just placed an order for more Tin Star, and it will be tough to resist but I think that I will try an N=1. Hoping I am not a cadillac…

  6. Wow, just what I needed! Have been raised on butter and home made ghee, so did not give these up 8 yr’s. ago when I had to give up dairy and gluten. It might be that minuscule amount that I need to give up,to rid myself of inflammation. Have Hashis, celiac and now insulin resistance. Thank you, Angel!

  7. This is such helpful information and so clearly explained. I’m still not certain whether I can tolerate Ghee, given my healing from Crohn’s, which is going quite well on the AIP. I use it every so often but haven’t been certain as to whether I do ok on it or not since it’s hard for me to regulate all variables when reintroducing. Will try again soon!

    • Spk, one way to double-check is to remove it for 30 days, and since you know you don’t have a dramatic reaction when you eat it occasionally, try eating a little bit every day for a week. If it’s inflammatory for you, you should be able to tell by the end of the week. If you still feel good, or within your normal range of fluctuations, ghee is probably safe for you. I have a friend with Crohns who does very well with it, but we are all unique!

      • Thanks, Eileen. It’s interesting that some people with Crohn’s do well with ghee since I assume people with digestive autoimmune diseases will not tolerate dairy a all. What I find difficult about reintroductions is the reality that even on strict AIP there are likely foods that I don’t tolerate that well. So feeling malaise in the days after a reintroduction still leaves me questioning what I’m reacting to (even though my bowels remain fine). Still a work in progress. Thanks again for your contributions to the community.

        • Spk – I have two thoughts. (1) Sometimes our malaise has nothing to do with food; we often jump to that conclusion, but it can be the ups and downs of autoimmune disease, or related to other autoimmune triggers like stress and lack of sleep. (2) Do you have my AIP Reintroduction Guide? In it, I really help people identify what is and isn’t a food reaction through a two-stage process.

  8. I save my bacon fat for flavor in AIP biscuits and veggies .is this bad or good fat. It’s uncured. I cook with it to give flavor . Love my bacon!

    • The thing about bacon fat, from what I’ve read recently, is that it doesn’t have the ideal essential fatty acid makeup. So it’s more inflammatory, let’s say, than tallow or coconut oil. I now try to limit it more than I used to.

  9. Even though the cholesterol is oxidized, it is still shown in studies to be therapeutic and to aid in lowering bad cholesterol. In ayurveda, where it is traditionally used long before paleo made it cool..It is very nourishing to tissues and also promotes digestive fire. With that said, digestive fire it burns thru fat that holds toxins and bacteria and can cause inflammation in areas that need healing after that dump and burning of bad tissue. After all, inflammation is not the bad guy. without it, our body would not know how to heal. One of the best things it does is pull heavy metals and toxins outhat of tissues it has been impeded in. One of the best heavy metal detox I have found.

    • Leslie, if you tolerate it, I agree it can be very beneficial. However, I don’t agree that added inflammation is beneficial to people with autoimmune disease. We have too much already. The “healing crisis” theory has gotten a lot of us into trouble, causing autoimmune flares instead of healing. I really believe in N=1. Everyone should test ghee for themselves. If your body likes it, it’s a fabulous fat to eat. If your body reacts negatively, trust your body and choose other healthy fats instead. There are many options out there.

  10. Oh, man. Not the resounding “yes!” I was hoping for regarding ghee, but very informative. I rarely comment, but I thought I should thank you for all your time and hard work. Well done, and all the best to you on your continued journey on the wellness path!

  11. Thanx for this! I’ve been tempted to try it, but still so reactive, I’ve been hesitant… This new info helped me decide it’s a no !

  12. Thanks for explaining the true meaning of cultured ghee. As a celiac, I react to regular ghee. I tested the Purity Farms brand, and I believe they have the same detection limits for casein that you listed. I had the impression that cultured ghee would be completely casein free, and I was looking forward to trying it sometime in the future. Now I am much more hesitant, and I will not be making this reintro a priority, especially when the cultured variety costs so much more.

    • I think cultured ghee is misunderstood by a lot of people. I appreciate the owners of Tin Star Foods who told me exactly how it’s really made.

  13. I have tried a few brands that I can’t tolerate (RA). Now, I am curious about Pure Indian Foods, but I am also hesitant due to Eileen’s experience. I love the flavor of ghee and can’t tolerate coconut oil, so it would be so nice to rotate it in once a week or so for the vitamins and fat.

    • What I appreciate about Pure Indian Foods is that they are honest and don’t claim the 100% allergen-free that so many companies advertise. But I think you’re right Hilary, if you’ve tried other brands and reacted negatively, ghee as a whole category is probably not the right fat for you. Have you tried duck fat? That’s one of my favorites.

  14. Thank You for this post. I’ve had VERY itchy welts on the back of my head and neck for months! I keep a food/health diary and could not figure out if this was caused by food. After reading your post I thought what the heck and stopped eating The cultured ghee. Within a day the itching was less intense and in couple of days the welts started subsiding. If they stay away for a couple of weeks I’ll know this was the culprit.

  15. Thanks for all your incredibly informative posts, Eileen. I learn so much from your site. One thing I’m not totally clear on: Why did you have such bad pain in response to the reintroduction of ghee when you’d been eating it without pain for all that time? What’s going on there, why does that happen? I’m still trying to understand the fine points of AI. Thanks!

    • Hi Carol. It’s the science of elimination/provocation. When you eat a food regularly to which you are intolerant, it causes chronic inflammation where it’s difficult to discern the source. When you remove it from your diet for 30 days, your immune system has a chance to calm down, but it leaves a few “guard cells” circulating, which can identify that food if you eat it again. When you eat it, they set off the alarms and the response is more acute. It’s not comfortable – but it’s very clear. You know it’s a problem food. Ghee was contributing to the mild inflammation that remains in my body. While I no longer flare, I’m not in complete remission. Ghee was one contributing factor that I wasn’t aware was a problem until I did this test.

  16. Thank you for your thorough research and blogpost which serves as a reminder and encouragement. I have been fairly strict AIP for 15 months, but I have been a little sloppy with reintroductions and have added back too many things that I like but haven’t clearly tested like coffee, chocolate, almonds and ghee. When you said wrist flare I had a bit of an aha moment. I have RA too, and I’ve been having a wrist flare for awhile now. Thank you for all you do to help keep us informed and contribute to healing!

    • I think that’s one of the reasons I love sharing our personal stories – so often there’s one detail that resonates with someone else. May your wrist flare go away! They are not fun.

  17. Thank you for your diligent research on ghee Eileen! I just ordered a new jar of Tinstar Ghee and now will have to try reintroducing it to see how I react. It is very interesting to see how my body reacts as I continue my healing journey. I have noticed that when I eat something my body doesn’t like, I tend to feel a flare ‘coming on’ and that evening or the next morning, it’s in full force. Is that normal? Also, in addition to my eczema, I have a sensation either in my joints or bones that tells me it’s an inflammatory response, which is new to me since I started AIP. Could this be an arthritic related response do you think? I’m so used to monitoring my skin issues and I have no experience with this new sensation!

    • Hi Melissa. Everyone’s unique in the clues their bodies gives with a food reaction, and often the reaction differs slightly depending on the food. It’s not indicative of arthritis – any inflammation can cause temporary joint pain. It sounds to me like you’re learning your body’s language, and that communication is so empowering to have. Best wishes with your ghee reintro!

  18. Is it possible to stay on AIP indefinitely and maintain health? Someone asked me if I was going to ever go back and would I be hurting my health more by depriving it of food. But I thought about it and I think I eat better now then ever. A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered eating a sweet potato or a parsnip. Am I missing out on certain nutrients by never going back to dairy or whole grains? I think my biggest concern is consuming enough healthy fats. How much healthy fat do we need in a day? If I have an avocado once a day and eat broccoli drizzled in olive oil is that enough healthy fats? I just want to make sure that there isn’t something I’m missing but it made me stop and think when a coworker asked me if I was getting all my nutrients. Which is almost comical because I wasn’t worried about it when I wasn’t on AIP and between the gluten and refined sugar I’m sure I wasn’t getting what I needed then either. What a strange journey. 🙂

    • I can so relate to your experience, Christy. I’m definitely eating much more nutrient-dense now than I ever was before I started the AIP. Here’s a chart you can show your coworker. Terry Wahls created it, comparing her diet to the standard American Diet: . That said, strict AIP isn’t meant to last forever. You will want to do careful reintroductions at some point, following the advice in my Reintroduction Guide. Because if we can expand diet, it’s better nutritionally and psychologically. That doesn’t mean we’ll go back to eating gluten and sugar again, but most of us will be able to add back in some things. Although, I need to stay away from all dairy including ghee, I can eat white rice, seedbased spices and eggs. Those were successful reintroductions for me. To answer your last question – you want to eat healthy fats at every meal. Don’t fear them. Every cell in our body is made of 50% fat and our brain is made of 60% fat. Healthy fats are essential to everything from nutrient absorption to brain function to hormone balance.

  19. I tried reintroducing ghee today and within an hour or two had a painful, but quick, stomach ache. If I can’t tolerate ghee, can I still try reintroducing other dairy? I’m really missing yogurt!

    • Oh, I’m sorry Dee, and I can relate! I don’t recommend introducing other forms of dairy if you react negatively to ghee. It’s definitely the least allergenic. Have you tried making coconut yoghurt? It’s delicious!

  20. Hi – Great post. My daughter seems to be tolerating Organic valley ghee, but her eczema flared up when she had cultured ghee (Ancient Organics). There’s something about the ‘culture’ that didn’t work for her. She is even able to tolerate OV Grassmilk (much to my amazement).

    • That’s so interesting! It shows how unique we all are. Thanks for sharing. I’ve very happy for your daughter that she’s tolerating some quality dairy.

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