Olive oil comes, obviously, from olives. It takes almost 11 pounds to produce 1 liter (slightly more than a quart) of oil. Olives need to be harvested at the correct degree of ripeness and extra virgin oil is processed within 8 to 10 hours to assure quality.
You can buy extra virgin, virgin, light, Italian, Californian, Spanish, or flavor-infused varieties. Nutritionally, all of these are rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats and health-protective compounds. The rest depends on the color and flavor you prefer or how you intend to use the oil.
Extra virgin and virgin olive oils are extracted without heat or chemical solvents. Extra virgin comes from the first extraction and has the most distinct flavor. Virgin is similar but may have a less pungent flavor. Pure olive oil is produced from further extractions, and is made more flavorful by adding back a small amount of virgin or extra virgin to perk it up. Light or extra light olive oil refers to color and flavor, not fat or calories. It is a blander olive oil with less flavor and color. It is a good choice for baking.
Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. California produces about 1% and most is used in the U.S. Most bottles don’t list the country of origin, they just tell you from where the oil was bottled or imported. Much of the Italian olive oil we use was actually produced in Spain, shipped to Italy in bulk, bottled and labeled and then sold worldwide.
Consumers are looking for good tasting foods that also offer health benefits. Olive oil fits the bill. It is the main type of fat eaten by those who traditionally eat a Mediterranean diet. It is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is less susceptible to oxidation and provides a long shelf-life for the oil. This natural protective effect can have benefits in your body as well.
The most robust research on olive oil has been done on heart disease. The protective effects are attributed to oleic acid and the antioxidant polyphenols. Those who use olive oil regularly have lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and higher HDL (good) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol oxidation leads to the development of blockages in the arteries and olive oil appears to protect against this. Several studies also show that olive oil protects against high blood pressure, another significant risk for heart disease. Information from the Three Cities Study found that older individuals who were intensive olive oil users, using the oil for both cooking and as a dressing, had a 41% lower risk for stroke than those who did not use olive oil.
Researchers believe that at least one-third of all cancer cases could be prevented by dietary changes. Using olive oil, might be one, easy, beneficial change. The high oleic acid content in olive oil appears to be protective against breast, colon and prostate cancer. Rates of skin cancer are also lower in those that traditionally use olive oil. The oil is high in squalene which may be responsible for this protective effect. Olive oil contains 0.7% squalene, while most other foods range between 0.002 to 0.003%. The major concentration of this cancer protective substance is found in the skin.
A growing body of research is showing that many serious diseases are associated with low-grade inflammation – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. As we learn more, medical professionals are looking for foods with anti-inflammatory properties. Olive oil may help to prevent inflammation because its phenolic compounds modify the action of genes that promote inflammation. Increased olive oil use has been linked to a lower risk for rheumatoid arthritis and its use can increase function and mobility in those already affected by the disease. Olive oil contains oleocanthal, a potential anti-inflammatory substance. Oleocanthal may turn out to be especially protective against Alzheimer’s disease. It alters the structure of the toxic proteins thought to cause damage to brain nerve cells.
The accumulating evidence of the protective effect of eating olives and using olive oil as part of a healthy lifestyle appears convincing. As new research emerges it may be possible to make recommendations about the daily intake of olives and olive oil needed to provide the greatest benefit to health.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.
The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
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For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: TheNutritionExperts
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