A glass jar filled with ghee, or clarified butter.

Ghee —a type of clarified butter—seems to be everywhere these days. You may have seen jars of it on the shelves at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and wondered what it is. And thanks partly to the high-fat Keto diet craze, ghee’s popularity in the U.S. has soared: Fans are tossing their pasta with ghee and even dropping dollops of it into their morning coffee. Proponents claim that it can do everything from enhance weight loss to prevent dementia—but does it do those things, and is it really good for you?  

Ghee Nutrition

Ghee is made by heating butter, which causes the water to evaporate and the milk solids to settle. The white to deep yellow liquid—pure butterfat—that remains is ghee. It tastes delicious—like a nutty, rich butter—and is a common ingredient in South Asian cooking. But, like regular butter, it’s high in saturated fat, so it’s no health food, says Wahida Karmally, R.D., a special research scientist at Columbia University.  

More on Healthy Eating

Saturated fat raises the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, she notes. And high levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to blockages in arteries that can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Lately there has been some controversy around the health hazards of saturated fats, after a few studies failed to find a link between saturated fat and an increased risk of heart disease and death. But scientists say these results need to be put in the context of people’s overall diet. Indeed, other research has found that when people replace saturated fats with refined carbohydrates, their risk of heart disease doesn’t fall. But when they swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats, it does decline.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people consume less than 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fats. The American Heart Association is even stricter: It says people should get only 5 to 6 percent of their calories per day from saturated fat. A tablespoon of ghee has about 130 calories and 14 grams of fat—and 10 grams of that fat is saturated. (The same amount of butter has 102 calories and 12 grams of fat, 7 of them saturated.)

Depending on which recommendation you go with, a tablespoon of ghee supplies someone who eats 1,800 calories daily with about half to nearly all of the saturated fat he or she should have in a day.

Ghee does have vitamins A, E, and K, but “you’d have to eat so much ghee to get a significant amount,” says Lisa Sasson, a clinical professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University. 

The Health Claims

The dangers of saturated fats are why scientists like Karmally are concerned by the rise of ghee—and why they’re flummoxed by the unusual trend of people adding it to their morning coffee. (That practice took off several years ago with the launch of the Bulletproof brand of coffee, ghee, and supplements.) Advocates say it makes them feel full, allowing them to skip breakfast and supposedly leading to weight loss. Some ghee enthusiasts say it promotes mental clarity and may event prevent dementia.

Ghee is used in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system, where it is believed to aid digestion, flexibility, and memory and is often combined with medicinal herbs. But there is no scientific evidence to support ghee’s role in health, says Karmally. Indeed, there are only a handful of scientific studies looking at the health effects of ghee. In most of them, the subjects are rats.  

Should You Use Ghee?

Sasson says a small amount—a teaspoon or so—of ghee is fine to use as a flavor enhancer, especially if it encourages you to eat other healthy foods. “If somebody uses a little ghee on a lot of vegetables, whole grains, and beans, that’s a great diet,” she says. 

Still, there are much better options when it comes to choosing fats. Go for foods that are good sources of monounsaturated fats (like avocados and olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (like soybean oil and corn oil) instead, says Walter C. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Polyunsaturated fats, in particular, lower levels of LDL cholesterol and boost levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Research also suggests that polyunsaturated fats reduce the formation of blood clots and ease inflammation, Willett says.

And what about stirring ghee into your coffee? If you insist on adding some fat to your cup of coffee, Willet says “it would be better to put some olive oil in it.”