Ghee is the Indianized version of butter oil which is a highly valued by-product of dairy industry. Why this is liked very much in India, despite it being demonized for presence of saturated fats and cholesterol? People love it for its delicate flavor that comes from high heat processing of fresh butter in open pans. Compared to other fats, ghee fetches a premium price to the extent of 100 to 150% and almost all diaries, private as well as cooperative, produce them being sold under various brand names. Ghee is also used in a variety of sweetmeat preparations through out the country. The ingenuity of food fraudsters in adulterating this valued fat product has spawned an entire industry that uses solid fats like Vanaspati in such proportions that cannot be easily detected by the hapless consumer. According to a recent report from the food safety authority sources, more than 50% of market samples of ghee are adulterated as discovered during a market vigilance operation and subsequent laboratory tests of seized samples. If this is true imagine the easy money the fraudsters are making through this devious route!
Assuming that the figures trotted out by the above report is really true, what are its health implications? Antagonists of ghee consumption basically raise three issues regarding the desirability of taking ghee in our foods. First ghee is supposed to contain cholesterol as it is derived from animal sources. This cannot be refuted though the cholesterol content in ghee, about 250 mg % cannot be considered very high since human body does need about 300 mg of this fat emulsifying aid for digestion of fatty foods in the gastrointestinal tract. Second the saturated fat content, about 62% in ghee makes it eminently eligible for raising a red flag as there is a common impression that all saturated fats are bad for the health. Agreed that saturated fat consumption is not encouraged by nutritionists because of its tendency to raise the Low Density Cholesterol ( LDL) levels in the blood which is bad for the heart but consumption of saturated fat to a limited extent is not dangerous as long as major calories come from plant oils of liquid nature. The third issue is presence of trans fats (TF) in ghee which is being condemned world wide for its ill effects on heart. Why this concern about TF which is present only in small quantities in ghee?
Of course trans fats are not desirable as a general rule but one has to make a difference between naturally occurring TF and man made TF. Hydrogenated Fats ( HF) made in huge quantities on demand by the food industry to incorporate into various processed products contain very high levels of HF, some times as high as 40% and naturally even a 10 gm portion can contribute about 4 gm of TF to the consumer. Unfortunately almost all baked foods are steeped in HF and intake of TF must be much more than what is considered safe. Health agencies all over the world are hesitant to put a "safe limit" for TF as far as human beings are considered and universally a zero tolerance is advocated. However practical ground reality makes it inevitable for humans to imbibe some TF through various foods consumed. This has necessitated for WHO to put an upper limit of TF ingestion equivalent to 1% of calories derived from the foods we consume every day. In the US there is a guideline which says TF consumption should not be more than 2 gm a day per person.
Incidentally TF is present from 1 to 4% in human milk and naturally the child also imbibes this. But at such levels TF is not considered unsafe for a growing child. Similarly all animal derived milks contain TF to the extent of 2-5% of its total fat content. As a consequence both butter and ghee will contain TF passed on from the fluid milk during processing. One vital difference between saturated fat and TF is that the former just increases the LDL content in blood without any adverse effect on the HDL level. In contrast TF can cause both an increase in LDL and decrease in HDL, a double whammy! Health conscious consumers must avoid consumption of hydrogenated fats like Vanaspati be it any brand if to be protected against heart disease. But ghee cannot be categorized as a dangerous fat measured by any standards. On the contrary there are many reports highlighting the positive properties of ghee for human beings. As true with any food, moderation is always advised while consuming any fatty foods and ghee is no exception to this golden rule.
Talking about the extent of adulteration of ghee in India, one is left with an impression that a proper study has never been made about different markets in the country based on which any conclusion can be drawn regarding this menacing issue. If FSSAI is to be believed more than 60% of milk marketed by private players in the unorganized sector are adulterated and how harmful such a situation can be to the health of our population can be guessed. Similarly if this logic is extended to ghee market, one cannot doubt that most of the samples must be impure, adulterated with hydrogenated fat. Though no precise data is available, the estimated production of ghee in the country is about a million tons and even adulteration at 10% level can be a rewarding effort for the adultrators!. One comforting thought is that this heinous crime is perpetrated mostly by players in the unorganized sector though catching them is much more difficult than those indulging in this practice from the organized sector. Viewed from another perspective, the adulterated ghee containing Vanaspati can increase the TF ingestion among people with undesirable consequences in the long run. Sooner FSSAI takes preventive action to curb the growth of ghee adulteration "industry", better it will be for the health of the citizens of this country.