As Nicole and I sail across Greece, exploring a Greek version of a Mediterranean Diet, we see olive trees growing everywhere, olive oil on every restaurant table, and menus that proudly state “they only cook with extra-virgin olive oil”.
For millennia, the Greeks have promoted olive oil. Homer, the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.” Hippocrates, a physician known as the father of Western medicine, called it “the great healer” and prescribed it as a therapy for more than 60 different medical conditions.
Olives were used as food and as fuel, as the oil was a basic product in lighting lamps, used in medicine and cosmetics, plus the export of the oil was of great economic importance.
Pedanius Dioscorides, another Greek physician and botanist, and author of De Materia Medica– a 5-volume Greek encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances, was one of the first to recognize that the healthiest olive oils were those freshly extracted from unripe olives.
It’s no coincidence that Mediterranean populations tend to live longer and suffer less heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes than North Americans and northern Europeans. This observation has inspired great interest in the Mediterranean diet, particularly olive oil, one of its main components.
In recent years, hundreds of studies have shown that olive oil consumption will reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve blood sugar levels, and fight cancer.
Mary M. Flynn, PhD, RD, a Brown University professor and dietician at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island, explains that there is a “common misperception that the health benefits of olive oil are due to the monounsaturated fat content,” which is often correctly viewed as being healthier than saturated fat and trans fat. However, olive oil offers far more than that, according to Flynn: “Studies done in animals and in test tubes have shown that the phenols in olive oil have amazing health benefits, such as selectively killing cancer cells, decreasing inflammation, and inhibiting tumor growth.”
Much of the recent research on olive oil has focused on the contribution of polyphenols, which are antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidants. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the type of olive oil that tends to be richest in polyphenols; it is unrefined, and refining destroys many of the healthy compounds. (The amount and type of polyphenols varies from one EVOO to another, and virgin olive oil also contains smaller amounts of them.) Extra-virgin oil is, therefore, recommended for those seeking maximum health benefits.
The polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil also have many anti-inflammatory properties, similar to the drug Ibuprofen. This anti-inflammatory activity is significant since many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and arthritis, are associated with chronic inflammation. High-phenolic EVOO has also been shown to reduce the blood clotting and narrowing of arteries that can lead to cardiovascular diseases, and one of the key components, oleocanthal, has even killed cancer cells in test tubes, without harming healthy cells.
Bottom line………..consuming extra-virgin olive oil is good for you!
Buying and Cooking with Olive Oil
There are three mistakes many Americans make with olive oil when they’re incorporating it into their daily diets. The first is using regular (non extra-virgin) olive oil. The second is cooking with it at high-heat. The third is using too little or too much of it.
The first-time olives are pressed to produce oil, that product is called extra-virgin olive oil, which has the highest concentration polyphenols and the most health benefit. The second pressing is called virgin olive oil, still acceptable but less beneficial. Next, they heat the olives and use chemicals to extract the remaining regular oil from the olives, creating regular olive oil. I strongly recommend that you avoid regular processed olive oil, as the oil is likely damaged from the exposure to heat and it is also contaminated with chemical residues.
Do not use olive oil for high-heat cooking. The smoke point for extra-virgin olive oil is only 400 degrees F. High-heat obliterates its nutrients and even turns it into an unhealthy fat. It also destroys the taste—making it bitter, another reason why it’s a waste of money to ruin your good oil with high heat. You can cook with extra-virgin olive oil at low or medium heat, but not high heat, and you can use it when baking if you stay under 395 degrees F. Of course, it is fantastic when used with salads or dressings. On occasion, when you need high heat, use avocado oil, almond oil, or ghee.
One serving of olive oil varies anywhere from 1 to 2 teaspoons to 1 to 2 tablespoons per person per dish. Published studies show that consuming up to a ½ cup of olive oil per person per day is associated with weight loss and better health. Still, it’s not hard to pour a half-cup of oil into a single meal recipe if you’re not paying attention. (A tablespoon of any oil has 120 calories, which is reasonable, while 1/2 half cup provides 960 calories, which would be over the top.) Just 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon in a serving of food can provide a wonderful smooth texture and a lovely flavor. You likely need at least 2-4 tablespoons per day per person to benefit from its health-related properties.
Beware of suspiciously cheap olive oil. It’s likely adulterated with other oils such as soybean or canola oils, or it may not actually be extra-virgin.
Much has been made of the origins of olive oil and where the “best” oil comes from. It’s largely a matter of taste—and also availability. Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Greece, California, Turkey, Australia, and most recently Tunisia produce significant volumes of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. In fact, Spain—home to the healthiest, longest-lived people in the Western world—is the largest producer of olive oil on the globe and produces one of my personal favorites.
Some bottlers sell a “blend” of extra-virgin olive oils from different countries, but buyer, beware: If it’s sold in a giant plastic jug or tin container, and it’s really cheap, it’s probably not the real thing. (Some reports suggest that up to half of all olive oil from Europe has been diluted with cheaper, less healthy oils.) Ideally, look for some form of certification, such as the California Olive Oil Council, to ensure that you are getting the real thing.
In general, when buying olive oil, it is best to buy from retailers that let you taste the oil to ensure you enjoy the flavor, and in small quantities, as once the container is opened, the oil deteriorates quickly. It’s also better to buy olive oil in dark colored glass bottles as the light can damage it. Avoid buying olive oil that comes in a plastic bottle, as the chemicals in plastic leak into the oil.
Finally, try to buy olive oil that is less than a year old, as it will have the greatest antioxidant activity. (Look for the “pressed on” or “harvested on” date on the bottle.).
I have personally used olive oil from the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club. They import fresh pressed artisanal olive oil from producers around the world during harvest season. It is the most flavorful and healthiest extra virgin olive oil on the planet. All the oils are independently lab tested and certified for 100% purity. If you would like to try a bottle of their olive oil you can for just $1, click here.
Extra-virgin olive oil is one of the true win/win food ingredients that you should have in your kitchen, as it has a delicious flavor and using it is good for your health!
I wish you the best of health,
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS
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