Casein is one of the proteins found in milk. While it's buddy whey is often touted for it's health benefits and used as a supplement, casein has become famous in quite the opposite way: as a supposed cancer-causative agent and inflammation-inducing jerk. I say supposed cancer causing agent because a lot of the research in this area (namely Collin Campbell's rat studies and The China Study) are rather flawed. That's the topic for a whole other blog post, though...
Even though I don't place a lot of weight in Campbell's rat studies, I can tell you that casein is very inflammatory and is a big problem for a lot of people. As you know, I like to use Cyrex lab's panels when assessing patients for food sensitivities in my office. There are a LOT of different ways to "test" for reactions to food; I have found Cyrex to be the most valuable and reliable.
So, what are we casein intolerant folk supposed to do? The obvious answer is "never touch dairy again", but sadly, many (especially in the paleo and primal communities) are anxious to cling to their beloved dairy in any way that they can. Even the highly regarded paleo-goddess Diane Sanfilippo has stated that she doesn't tolerate dairy very well, but uses Ghee. This woman has also blogged about how safe and wonderful ghee is for casein intolerant people. Hmmmm....
NO! Don't do it, especially if you have an autoimmune disease.
Here's the thing, kids: Casein sensitivity is just as serious as a gluten sensitivity, which is just as serious as full-blown Celiac disease because they all usually have an autoimmune component to them (article explaining more). If you are sensitive to this nasty stuff any little bit of exposure has the potential to tick off your immune system. Interestingly, if you read the comments on many of these "hooray for ghee" blogs you'll see many, many people saying that they do, in fact react to ghee. Frustratingly, this is usually met with a response from the posting author saying "well, have you tried THIS ghee?" Oy vey. You wouldn't see any Celiacs reaching for low-gluten bread if there was such a thing, let alone questioning the quality or the type of low-gluten bread when they react to it poorly. So, why are so many dairy intolerant people so eager to embrace ghee?
1. It's delicious
2. One of the big "selling points" of paleo is the whole "holy crap I was told for years that I couldn't eat these foods but now you're telling me they're okay to eat and possibly even healthy?" Dairy is one of those foods.
3. Paleo and primal people like to talk about the health benefits of dairy, which I readily admit are numerous if your immune system and gut don't say otherwise. Heck, many people now put butter or ghee in their coffee, even. Obviously we casein intolerant folk don't want to feel left out of the fun.
4. What else are you supposed to use for cooking oil?
5. Did I mention it's delicious?
I personally don't trust ghee and I don't recommend that my patients use it if they are sensitive to dairy.
Commercially available ghee can only be guaranteed to be so pure. Purity farms, for example states that their ghee contains no more than 0.11% casein. I remember digging a few months ago and figuring out that 0.11% comes out to around 1200 PPM casein (I will try to find where I found that number). To give you a reference of how much casein that is, for beer to be considered "gluten free" it needs to test below 20 PPM of gluten. 20 versus 1200 Parts Per Million. No thanks.
Since originally writing this post, I have discovered one brand of ghee that I think is safe. Pure Indian Foods Cultured Ghee is tested for casein and is certified to be less than 2.5 ppm!
Homemade ghee is likely even worse than store-bought ghee as far as casein content goes. I'm all about making stuff from scratch but come on, folks. I've seen people make ghee before- you simmer the butter until the proteins foam at the top, then you scoop off the foam with what looks like a wonton scooper or a spoon. I would get the heebie jeebies if somebody cooked gluteney pasta in my pots and pans even if they cleaned them out afterward. What makes us believe that we can do an adequate job getting rid of those pesky milk proteins? I don't buy it.
Lastly, a plea to all the paleo bloggers out there:
Please, please stop telling people they can have ghee if they are casein intolerant. Unless you have the laboratory testing from multiple people to back up your claims, I'm just not buying it- but that's not the problem. The problem is that your audience might believe you. Regular people might read your claims and do harm to themselves because of it. Don't be the person who gives them incorrect and potentially dangerous information.
If you or somebody you know is interested in working with a functional medicine doctor please feel free to call our office at (919) 238-4094 to set up a free phone consultation and see if we are the right fit for you. Infinity Holistic Healthcare is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, part of the Raleigh-Durham "triangle" area.