Ghee can only be described in superlatives. It has a very important place in our Culture. It is called one of the 5 Amrits which are must when preparing prasad during festivals. Its required to burn Ghee diyas at all Hindu festivals. It is essential in "Havanas". It is mixed with honey and given to a newly born infant during the Naming Ritual aka "Namkaran Sanskar". It was the most preferred weaning food in the past. It is also required for burning a dead body during the "Dah Sanskar". It is required in our culture literally from cradle to grave.
Butter is also considered important in other dairy based cultures.
In Ayurveda, it is considered the best form of fat, above butter. No meal is considered balanced without ghee. It is said to ignite the fires of digestion, so that the food digests properly. It is also said to balance Vata and Pitta Doshas, and must be avoided when Kapha dosha is dominant. It is said to be very important for the development of brain, intelligence and memory power. It is said to be very good for the skin, eyesight and bones.
But modern medicine calls it the worst fat. It is said to be high in Saturated fat and Cholesterol, both are supposed to cause heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
So how do we reconcile the two. Obviously one position is wrong. Ayurveda's position is based on observation of the whole body. Modern Medicine's position is based on looking at just two things Saturated Fats and Cholesterol. In my opinion the Modern Medicine, misses the forest for the trees. It is so intent on looking at things from the bottom up that it fails to see the over all effect.
Contrary to Modern Medicine's expectation due to Saturated Fat and Cholesterol content, Ghee is not associated with increase in LDL Cholesterol. I have personally experienced it. My HDL increased and LDL reduced. This has been observed in studies too. In fact if you search for Ghee and cholesterol most of the articles talk about how it does not increase cholesterol. The only study on the first page stating otherwise is highly speculative, and does not account for a change of diet from mostly natural food to mostly packaged food.
There are several studies and individual reports from people who know nothing about Ayurveda and are Medical doctors and scientists who have endorsed several of the properties given by Ayurveda.
Bones, Teeth, Eyesight, and Skin
Dr. Weston A Price was a dentist in the early 19th century. He went across the world searching for people who had the best teeth and bone structures. He also studied the diet of such people. He later devised a medicine for fixing teeth. It was made up of Cod Liver Oil and Ghee (Butter oil as he called it). His research was published as a book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. His work agrees with Ayurveda that Ghee is very important for building healthy bones.
At the time of Dr. Price, the factor in Ghee which caused the development of strong bones was not known. But now it is found to be Vitamin K2. Ghee is quite high in MK4 version of Vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 has been found to be very important in Calcium metabolism. When there is enough Vitamin K2, the Calcium goes into bones and does not deposit in arteries or any other places. It reduces plaques and calcification.
Vitamin K2 is also associated with a softer skin. This effect is quite easily seen, when supplementing with Vitamin K2. Remember Ghee contains more Vitamin K2 if the cows ate grass.
Ghee also contains some preformed Vitamin A, which will be helpful for the eyesight. Ghee from Pastured cows is richer in Vitamin A. It also contains some beta carotene which gives it a golden yellowish color.
So we have seen above that the single factor Vitamin K2 provides multiple benefits, better bones, low calcification, better eyesight and a softer skin that resists wrinkling. As a bonus it also prevents heart disease, by reducing calcification of the arteries. Heart Disease was probably not very common in Ayurvedic times, so they didn't notice this effect.
Ghee is also the fat that is highest in Short Chain Fatty Acids, particularly Butyric Acid. SCFA's are known to feed, lubricate and heal the walls of the intestines, and hence improve digestion. Ghee contains about 10% short and medium chain fatty acids. These fats are very easy to digest. This property makes Ghee very easy to digest compared to other fats. Coconut oil has too much Medium chains which is not handled well by everybody.
The primary benefit of fibers in the body is to feed the bacteria in the intestines and colon. The bacteria produce the SCFA, which helps the intestines remain healthy. This effect maybe impaired for people with gut dysbiosis and other digestive disorders. In these cases Ghee is a very good substitute for SCFA from fiber. Fermented foods like curd also provide some SCFAs.
The SCFA, Butyric Acid and the moderate amount of medium chain fats, makes Ghee the ideal food for a good digestion, as has been observed by Ayurveda.
Brain, Memory, and Intelligence
Unfortunately there has not been any research on the effects of Ghee on the brain, memory and intelligence. But one scientist (not a medical researcher) Seth Roberts, who measures everything he does, has found that of all the different foods he tried, butter gives the biggest boost to his mental capacity. One reader actually conducted an experiment with 45 volunteers and compared Coconut oil with Butter. Result was Butter improved memory function while Coconut oil had no effect.
If I am to guess why butter helps brain more than other fats, it would be the fact that Brains and neurons are made up of Saturated fats and cholesterol. Butter has both. The grass fed versions of butter or ghee also have a good amount of DHA, EPA, and Arachidonic Acid, which are also required by neurons. The exact ratios may be the best in Ghee and Butter, compared to other fats.
Although there is not enough information about this particular property of Ghee, but it is quite possible that Ayurveda is right about this fact.
Vegetarians do not eat animal products except milk, and possibly eggs. For people not eating eggs, the only source of preformed fat soluble vitamins, like Vitamin A and K2, and also preformed DHA, EPA, and Arachidonic Acid is Dairy fat, particularly Ghee. Since India is the only country with very large number of Vegetarian people, there must have been enabling factors. I believe one of the most important enabling factor apart from around the year Sun is Dairy tolerance. Milk also provides Vitamin B12 and Zinc, which are quite a bit lower in Vegetarian foods. Ghee by providing the number of important fats and fat soluble vitamins assumes a much greater importance for Vegetarians.
It is possible that the emphasis Ayurveda places on Ghee is because at the time of Charak and Dhanvantari, India had substantial number of Vegetarians at least in the Brahmin class.
Ghee really is very good for the body. If you are a vegetarian, then it becomes even more important for you. Ayurveda developed in a period when Hindus were living a vegetarian life, and the authors knew how important Ghee was for the vegetarians. So for your own health eat ghee at all meals. Try to get pastured cow's ghee, which is much more healthy compared to ghee from normal farmed cows.