Olive oil is the butter of vegans and lacto vegetarians. It has a delicate and bold flavor that enhances flavor, rather than dominates it. It’s also extremely flexible as an oil, as it can be used in virtually any and every dish. You can dress any salad with it. It’s great hot or cold. You can use it to fry or sauté foods. Mix it with some balsamic vinegar and dunk a piece of bread in it. Use it in purees. Roast with it. The list goes on and on.
Olive oil is the healthiest oil or fat you can eat – hands down. The proven health benefits of olive oil are as extensive as they are wide ranging. Start substituting your cooking bases with olive oil – your body will thank you.
Olive Oil History and Culture
Olives for olive oil have be gathered and pressed since at least 4,000 BC, originating in the Mediterranean. The olive tree was the backbone of wealth in ancient times, hence its heavily symbolic nature. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, producing literally tons of olives in that time period. It is also hardy and easy to maintain, and as a result, reliable producer of valuable dense calories. Olive oil was also used for medicinal purposes, such as skin care. Roman athletes would coat their entire bodies in olive oil before events.
Current olive oil production is still based around the Mediteranean. Spain, Italy, and Greece combine to produce close to 75% of the world’s olive oil. Consumption rates follow production patterns, with Greece consuming 26 liters of oil per capita. The United States, by contrast, consumes less than a liter per capita.
The Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Studies show that relying on olive oil (especially extra virgin olive oil) as the sole source of oil based foods can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease – as low as 47%. Replacing butter and other oils with extra virgin olive oil as much as possible is, thus, a prudent health choice.
Olive oil promotes a healthy balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol in the body with its high monosaturated fat level. Those with overall high cholesterol typically have an excess amount of LDL and low HDLs, which leads to build up in the arteries surrounding the heart, eventually leading to heart attack and heart disease.
Olive oil also has high levels of various antioxidants that help protect the body and heart from damage from free radicals. These antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which can cause all sorts of health problems. These antioxidants also prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing. When LDLs oxidize, they are able to cling to artery walls, leading to build up in the heart. These antioxidants in combination with the other aforementioned qualities give olive oil its overall excellent protection of the heart.
Studies also show that regular consumption of olive oil can also reduce blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Add to the mix that olive oil can prevent bone loss, is a potent anti-inflammatory (and hence, anti-cancer), reduce asthmatic symptoms, and significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer, and olive oil seems less like a food and more like a miracle drug!
Eating More Olive Oil
The best way to enjoy the benefits of olive oil is to simply replace all other oils and fats in your diet with it. When cooking, replace butter, margarine, and vegetable oil with it. Use olive oil as a spread, replacing the butter that you might otherwise use. Replace the pad of butter on the counter with a small dish of olive oil.
Selecting olive oil at the store can be a confusing task. A whole wall is usually devoted to olive oils alone, leaving too many options and labels to inspect. Here are some tips on simplifying the process:
- · Always choose extra virgin olive oil. It is more pure, has better fats, and more phytonutrients that will benefit your health.
- · Avoid “pure” olive oil. It is actually, by definition, not pure, as it is a mix of refined and virgin olive oil.
- · Select olive oil that is kept in dark bottles. Light negatively effects olive oil, and will lead to early spoilage.
- · If you can, taste the olive oil before you purchase it. Some specialty food stores now offer tasting bars or samples, which will help guide you to the best tasting olive oil.
- · If you’re interested in where the olive oil is coming from, make sure it’s labeled as “made in country” rather than “product of country”. Saying something is a “product of” might mean it was only bottled and labeled there, whereas the actual oil is more than likely produced elsewhere.
- · The old adage is true with olive oil: you get what you pay for. There are certainly differences between similarly priced oils, but, in general, the more you pay, the higher the quality.
Store your olive oil in a cool, dark area. Kept in these conditions, it should last about a year.
Try having two types of olive oil on hand at all times. One medium grade olive oil for cooking, and a higher grade olive oil for more direct eating. The nicer stuff should be reserved for dipping with breads or drizzling on salad, when the flavor of the olive oil really shines through. This is the best way to maximize flavor while saving on price.