Anyone born and raised in the Mediterranean will tell you about the wonderful flavour, as well as the health benefits, of a good olive oil on salads and almost anything else. We are fortunate that it is available throughout the year to satisfy taste buds and promote good health. However, as I have recently discovered, there’s more to it than meets-the-eye.
During my last visit to the beautiful Sunshine Coast I met Fiona Pinnell of the Sunshine Coast Olive Oil Company at her store in Gibsons, BC. Fiona educated me on what the difference of a real Virgin Olive Oil and some of the pretenders really is. It is, as with most things, “buyer beware” and definitively worth exploring.
Olive oil is made from the crushing and then subsequent pressing of olives. It is available in a variety of grades, which reflect the degree to which it has been processed. Derived from the first pressing of the olives, Extra Virgin Olive Oil has the most delicate flavour and strongest overall health benefits. For more information on these different grades of olive oil and how to select go to: sunshinecoastoliveoil.com.
If olive oil is high in fat, why is it considered healthy?
The main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). MUFAs are actually considered a healthy dietary fat. If your diet replaces saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats such as MUFAs and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), you may gain certain health benefits.
MUFAs and PUFAs may help lower your risk of heart disease by improving related risk factors. Some research shows that MUFAs may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.
But even healthier fats like olive oil are high in calories, so use them only in moderation.
Thanks to its status as a spotlight food in the Mediterranean Diet, and thanks to extensive research on its unique phytonutrient composition, olive oil has become a legendary culinary oil with very difficult-to-match health benefits.
Most of the polyphenols in this list have been shown to function both as antioxidants and also as anti-inflammatory nutrients in the body. The very number and variety of polyphenols in olive oil helps explain the unique health benefits of this culinary oil. Among its extensive list of health benefits are:
While we don’t normally think of a culinary oil as an anti-inflammatory food, (plant oils are nearly 100% fat, and in a general dietary sense, they are typically classified as “added fats) it’s pretty remarkable to find a culinary oil that’s repeatedly been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and provide health benefits in the area of unwanted inflammation. Yet that’s exactly the research track record that describes extra virgin olive oil.
The anti-inflammatory strength of olive oil rests on its polyphenols.Research has documented a wide variety of anti-inflammatory mechanisms used by olive oil polyphenols to lower our risk of inflammatory problems.
Many different cardiovascular problems—including gradual blocking of the arteries and blood vessels — have their origin in two unwanted circumstances. The first of these circumstances is oxidative stress (too much damage from the presence of overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules). One of the best ways to help avoid oxidative stress is to consume a diet that is rich in antioxidant nutrients. The second of these circumstances is chronic and undesirable low-level inflammation. Chronic and undesirable inflammation can result from a variety of factors, including unbalanced metabolism, unbalanced lifestyle, unwanted exposure to environmental contaminants, and other factors. One of the best ways to help avoid chronic and unwanted inflammation is to consume a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients. Few foods are as rich in these compounds as extra virgin olive oil, and this fact alone accounts for many of the research-based benefits of this culinary oil for health of our cardiovascular system.
Digestive Health Benefits
The benefits of olive oil for the digestive tract were first uncovered in research on diet and cancers of the digestive tract. Numerous studies found lower rates of digestive tract cancers—especially cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the stomach and small intestine—in populations that regularly consumed olive oil. Studies on the Mediterranean Diet were an important part of this initial research on olive oil and the digestive tract. One particular category of polyphenols, called secoiridoids, continues to be a focus in research on prevention of digestive tract. Recent research has provided us with even more information, however, its polyphenols, and protection of the digestive tract.
Bone Health Benefits
Support of overall bone health is another promising area of olive oil use. A recent group of researchers has also suggested that olive oil may eventually prove to have special bone benefits for post-menopausal women.
The polyphenols found in olive oil are a natural for helping us lower our risk of certain cancer types. Research studies have shown that as little as 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil per day can lower our risk of certain cancer types, including cancers of the breast, respiratory tract, upper digestive tract, and to a lesser extent, lower digestive tract (colorectal cancers). In some research studies, the anti-cancer benefits of olive oil do not show up until the diets of routine olive oil users are compared with the diets of individuals who seldom use olive oil and who instead consume added fats that are more saturated in composition (for example, butter).
There is also encouraging research on the potential for olive oil to help with control of certain cancers once they have already developed. For example, improvement of breast cancer status has been an area of particular interest in olive oil research.
How to Select and Store
Since olive oil can become rancid from exposure to light and heat, there are some important purchasing criteria you should follow to ensure buying a better quality product. Look for olive oils that are sold in dark tinted bottles since the packaging will help protect the oil from oxidation caused by exposure to light. In addition, make sure the oil is displayed in a cool area, away from any direct or indirect contact with heat.
When you shop for olive oil, you will notice a host of different grades are available, including extra-virgin, virgin, refined and pure:
• Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the unrefined oil derived from the first pressing of the olives and has the most delicate flavour.
• Virgin olive oil is also derived from the first pressing of the olives but has a higher acidity level than extra virgin olive oil (as well as lower phytonutrient levels and a less delicate taste).
According to the standards adopted by the International Olive Council (IOC), “virgin” can contain up to 2% free acidity (expressed as oleic acid), while “extra virgin” can only contain up to 0.8% of free acidity. It is important to note, however, that acidity is by no means the only difference between EVOO and other grades of olive oil. In fact, a sizeable amount of controversy has arisen within the olive oil industry over key characteristics of EVOO and the extent to which these characteristics are present in commercial products. Since over 90% of all EVOO consumed in the United States is imported, many evaluators of EVOO have looked to the International Olive Council (IOC) headquartered in Madrid, Spain for quality criteria in evaluating EVOO. However, unlike Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and other European Union countries that were founding members of the IOC, the United States has never become an official IOC member country or adopted IOC standards for EVOO as its own mandatory standards.
In the United States, voluntary standards for olive oil have traditionally been set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which in 2010 did update its own standards to more closely resemble IOC standards in terms of EVOO chemistry. However, even though most IOC chemical standards like percent free acidity were adopted by the USDA, some differences remain between IOC and USDA chemical criteria. (In addition, since 2010, the IOC has gone on to update and revise some of its chemical standards, and these changes are not reflected in the existing USDA criteria.) But a perhaps even bigger part of the controversy over EVOO standards has not involved chemical criteria like percent free acidity but rather sensory criteria (also called “organoleptic” criteria) like taste and aroma. If you consider olive oil as falling into the category of a fresh fruit juice (in the sense that an olives actually belong to a special group of fruits called “drupes” and can be pressed to obtain their oil or “juice”), aroma and taste might be considered as defining characteristics of this food. Assurance of excellent taste and aroma is a more difficult regulatory standard than assurance of a chemical standard like percent free acidity, and to some extent may require closer monitoring of local conditions and plant varieties. In this context, several organizations in the U.S. offer their own quality seal for EVOO, including the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). Quality seals from these organizations can help provide assurance about EVOO quality.