The New Nectar of the Gods

How else would you describe a substance that guards against the most serious
health threats—heart disease and cancer—yet also appeals to gourmet tastes?
Olive oil, as researchers and consumers are discovering, is worth
its weight in nutritional gold.

By Joanne Gallo

February 2006

If you’re a devotee of those cooking shows featuring celebrity chefs but still harbor the slightest concern for your health, you learn to temper your excitement for elaborately prepared dishes with a healthy dose of skepticism. Cream sauce? A big no-no. Filet mignon? Once in a while. Soufflé for dessert? Maybe on your birthday.

Then there’s olive oil. The favored cooking ingredient of foodies is ripe with richness and flavor, and available in different varieties that possess nearly as many subtleties as the other nectar of the gods, wine. You imagine dining somewhere along a sun-drenched Mediterranean shore, dunking hearty slices of home-baked bread into thick, fragrant golden pools.

But for once the gods are smiling upon you—because olive oil is not only a culinary delight, it’s good for you too. Really good for you. Mounting-piles-of-scientific-evidence good for you. Heart protection, cancer protection…Strong sigh of relief.

Yes, it’s rare that something that delights your taste buds is also so valuable for your health—and has the research to prove it. Even the FDA allows olive oil producers to claim on their labels that consuming olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

That’s because olive oil is a heart-friendly monounsaturated oil. “Chemically, it is simply nicer to arteries,” says nationally syndicated columnist Jean Carper, author of Food—Your Miracle Medicine (HarperPerennial). “It lowers bad LDL cholesterol, but not good HDL cholesterol.” Health practitioners far and wide recommend that you replace the artery-clogging saturated fat in your diet, which comes from sources like butter and lard, with a monounsaturated fat like olive oil.

Olive oil is the backbone of the Mediterranean diet, touted as heart-healthier than typical American fare since studies have shown that Mediterraneans enjoy lower rates of heart disease than we do. Large-scale studies in the Alternative Medicine Review (June 2002) and the New England Journal of Medicine (June 2003) confirm that Mediterranean-style diets rich in olive oil provide significant protection against coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association tempers this enthusiasm by noting that there may be other lifestyle factors that contribute to Mediterraneans’ healthier hearts (like increased physical activity), but the research only continues to pour in.

For example, Greek researchers have found that olive oil can significantly reduce blood pressure levels (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004). Another recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that plant chemicals in olive oil known as polyphenols, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties, can improve blood vessel function and fight potential blockages.

But the good news doesn’t stop at the heart: Phenols in olive oil have also been credited with helping to prevent colon cancer, as they inhibit the formation of tumors. Oleic acid, the main fatty acid in olive oil, has been found to reduce levels of a protein produced by the breast
cancer gene Her-2/neu that is associated with aggressive tumors. Another compound in olive oil, oleocanthal, has an anti-inflammatory action similar to ibuprofen; while it’s unlikely a spoonful of oil could relieve a headache, it may prevent blood platelets from clumping together like the painkiller does.

Extra Virgin is Extra Healthy

Alright, you’re convinced: Olive oil is good for you. But choosing an olive oil, you quickly point out, is not such an easy task. Label distinctions abound and you hate to admit you’re in unfamiliar territory. So here’s a quick primer for all olive oil virgins:

• Extra-Virgin Olive (EVO) Oil is the healthiest of all olive oils. It is the cold-pressed result of the first pressing of the olives, produced with no chemical treatments. EVO contains no more than .8% per liter of oleic acid. It is also judged to have a richer, superior taste.
• Virgin Olive Oil is also produced without the use of chemicals. However, it has a higher oleic acid content than EVO—up to 2%. It also has a distinctive taste.
• Olive Oil (once called pure olive oil) is a blend of virgin oil and refined olive oil, which is defective virgin olive oil that has been chemically treated to neutralize undesirable tastes and odors as well as a high acid content. Regular olive oil contains at most 3.3% acidity and usually lacks any strong flavor.
• Olive Pomace Oil is the lowest grade of olive oil approved for human consumption. It is not widely available to consumers and is often used for commercial purposes.

Clearly, extra-virgin and virgin oils are the healthier and tastier options. Think of them as “naturally organic”: In an age of mass-produced, chemically treated food, virgin olive oil production is still a painstaking process as family farms throughout Southern Europe have passed down the tradition for centuries. (Here in the States, California is a big oil-
producing region.) “Extra-virgin olive oils contain no preservatives or sulfites,” notes wine and food writer Bill Nesto, contributing editor of Sante magazine. “In the production process, you add nothing. It is extremely fresh.”

Because extra-virgin olive oil is considered the finest of all olive oils, it is also the most expensive. However, some say the price is not high enough. “A bottle of oil costs more to produce than a bottle of wine and sells for much less,” notes Darrell Corti, an internationally known wine and food expert and owner of Corti Brothers grocery in Sacramento, California. (Think about how little oil can be squeezed out of an olive.) “The news about olive oil is just as good and far-reaching as it is for wine, in terms of being good for the heart,” Nesto chimes in. “Yet wine is considered a prestigious item and can be quite expensive, while a bottle of oil can scarcely fetch $25.”

That’s good news for consumers—for now. Though if you have ever tasted the pleasure of an extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany, distinctive bright green in color, you may be willing to shell out for special occasions. Extra-virgin olive oil is best reserved for dipping bread, making salad dressings and drizzling on vegetables, since its flavor tends to dissipate at higher temperatures and makes the added expense a waste. Try regular olive oil for cooking, as the International Olive Oil Council recommends. There is also now something known as light olive oil, but that does not refer to its fat content, rather a lighter color and taste. Food experts suggest using this type as well for baking and cooking when a nondescript flavor that won’t interfere with other tastes is desired.

With so many brands on the market—yes, business is booming—and a taste to match every palate, there’s never been a better time to switch to olive oil. Or at least try making a salad with one. Don’t let one of the biggest health discoveries in food and nutrition slip through your fingers.

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