Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Ever wonder why Greeks seem so happy and full of life? Tempting though it may be to attribute robust good health to anyone factor, the truth is that it’s always a combination of things. Unlike lab rats and college sophomores, “free-living” humans always do a bunch of things together, making “cause and effect” statements much more difficult. Greeks spend a lot of time outdoors, they eat their big meal in the daytime, they laugh and dance and break plates at weddings, and they eat lots of good foods.
And that gorgeous sunny climate can’t hurt, either. That said, virtually every nutritional researcher also attributes at least some of the legendary health of those in the Mediterranean to the copious consumption of olive oil.
Olive Oil Joins Omega-3 Fats and Walnuts in an Elite FDA Category
Now don’t go running out and start pouring olive oil on your cheeseburgers thinking you’re going to get the same results as the Greeks. Obviously, there’s a lot of other factors at play here, like what else besides olive oil is on the menu (the Mediterranean diet is notoriously high in fish, vegetables, and fruits and a lot lower in saturated fats). But all things being equal, a ton of research supports the statement that olive oil has some serious health benefits.
In fact, all that research was compelling enough to cause the very conservative FDA to permit olive oil membership in a very select group: foods or food substances whose label may contain a health claim benefit. (At this writing, that select group has only three members: olive oil, omega-3 fats, and walnuts.)
So what exactly is in olive oil, and what the heck does it do for you? Well, to start with, olive oil is very high in compounds called phenols, which are potent antioxidants. Olive oil is also mainly made up of monounsaturated fat, the most important of which is called oleic acid, shown in research to be extremely heart healthy. Compared with carbohydrates, for example, monounsaturated fat lowers LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and raises the protective HDL cholesterol. Research in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet (including plenty of monounsaturated fat) was associated with significant reduction in mortality among people diagnosed with heart disease.
And another study in the same journal compared two groups of people with high blood pressure. One group was given sunflower oil, a typical oil used in Western diets, and one group was given the good stuff: extra virgin olive oil (about which more in a moment). The olive oil decreased the second group’s blood pressure by a significant amount; it also decreased their need for blood pressure meds by a whopping 48 percent. As the English might say, “not too shabby.”
Olive Oil Decreases Risk of Colon and Bowel Cancer
Dr. Michael Goldacre-who researched diet and disease at the Institute of Health Sciences and published his results in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health-says that olive oil may have a protective effect on the development of colon cancer. And researchers at Oxford found that a diet rich in olive oil was associated with a decreased risk of bowel cancer.
Dr. Mark Houston, director of the Hypertension Institute at St. Thomas Hospital, and my favorite “go-to” guy for all things related to hypertension, says that among other things, monounsaturated fats “make nitric oxide more bioavailable, which makes it better able to keep the arteries dilated,” plus they “help combat the ill effects of oxidation and improve endothelial function.” Translated from the scientific jargon: The stuff is really, really good for you. Houston recommends 4 tablespoons a day for his patients.
What Does “Extra Virgin” Really Mean?
But now the bad news. All olive oil is not created equal. Unfortunately, commercial manufacturers, trying to ride the health hype on olive oil, have rushed to market all kinds of imitation and inferior products that say “olive oil” on them but have questionable benefits. Here’s where being an educated consumer really makes a difference. You may have been wondering what this “extra virgin” designation is all about. Well, here’s the deal. Olive oil is almost unique among the oils in that you can consume it in its crude form without any processing. If you had the chance, you could walk around barefoot in barrels of it, and take the resultant oil and use it directly on your salad (something you can’t do with other vegetable oils). Not refining the oil has the benefit of conserving the vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients. On the best family-owned farms, the oil is produced in ways similar to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans: Organic olives are picked by hand so as not to damage the skin or pulp; the oil is separated without the use of heat, hot water, or solvents; and it is left unfiltered.
The first pressing produces the best stuff, known as “extra virgin” olive oil. And that’s the stuff you want. That’s the oil that makes the list of the world’s healthiest foods. Once you begin machine harvesting and processing with heat, you start damaging the delicate compounds in olive oil responsible for all those great health benefits. The antioxidant poly phenols are water soluble-they’re washed away with factory processing.
In fact, that’s one reason that factory-produced olive oil has a shorter shelf life-no antioxidants to protect it. Real olive oil-the extra virgin kind, made with care and love and the absence of heat and harsh chemicals-lasts for years. So don’t fall for the idea that just because oil in a restaurant says “olive,” it’s necessarily the good stuff. Seek out the extra virgin stuff. It’s worth the extra money and effort to find it. Your heart will thank you.
(Source: 150 Healthiest Foods on the Earth by Jonny Bowden)