Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Health Benefits of Olive Oil

When consumed in moderation, olive oil has numerous health benefits. Using olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fats, instead of oils high in saturated fats has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, help the nervous system function properly and support healthy skin1. It contains mono-unsaturated fatty acids, particularly oleic acid, which have been shown to improve cholesterol and lower blood pressure, when replacing saturated fat1.

Olive oil is a great source of vitamin E, a fat soluble antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation, a process that can damage cells in the body caused by free radicals2. Olive oil also contains polyphenols. Studies have shown that polyphenols reduce low density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad cholesterol” and protect the cells from free radicals3.

In addition, olive oil contains a variety of other antioxidants including chlorophyll, carotenoids and the polyphenolic compounds that protect the vitamin E also found in olive oil. Scientists believe that this potent mixture of antioxidants could partially account for the health benefits observed from the Mediterranean diet4.

Types of Olive Oil

Olive oil is made from crushing and then pressing olives. Extra virgin olive oil is derived after the first pressing of the olives and is not refined. With its delicate flavor, it is generally considered the best tasting and has the lowest acid content. Extra virgin olive oil also contains the most nutrients, including heart healthy polyphenols. Virgin olive oil is also derived from the first pressing of the olives and is not refined, but it has a slightly higher acid content than extra virgin. The taste is less delicate and it has a slightly lower nutrient content than extra virgin.

Unrefined oils are more perishable and are best used with dishes that are not cooked, such as salads, or with low to medium heat such as for sautéing. Refined oil has a longer shelf life and can be used with high heat, such as deep frying.

Olive oils also vary by color. Green olive oils are made with unripe olives and have a slightly bitter flavor. Emerald tinged oils have fruity, grassy, or peppery flavors that dominate the food they are used with. They pair well with neutral flavored foods or stronger flavored foods that compliment the taste of the oil.

Gold colored olive oils are made using ripe olives and have a milder, smoother, somewhat buttery taste. They pair well with subtle flavors because the taste of the oil does not overshadow the food. Olive oils vary widely in flavor depending on where the olives were grown and how the oil was produced so picking out olive oil can be similar to selecting wine.

History

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean basin, which spans from Southern Europe, through Western Asia, up through North Africa. Olive oil has been cultivated and used for more than 5,000 years. The ancient Greek poet Homer called it “liquid gold”.

In addition to its culinary use, olive oil was also used in soap and skin care products, as a lubricant in machinery, for fuel in oil lamps, as an ingredient in medicine, and in religious rituals. Athletes in ancient Greece ritually rubbed olive oil on themselves before competition.

Olives were brought to America by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were introduced to California by the Franciscan missionaries in the late 18th century. Today, most of the commercial cultivation of olive oil is still centered in the Mediterranean region such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Turkey.

Uses + Tips

  • Unrefined olive oil has a short shelf life because it is prone to oxidation due to its high unsaturated fat content. It can become rancid when exposed to light and heat, so always purchase olive oil that is sold in a dark, tinted bottle and store it in a cool, dark area.
  • For more flavor, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar or your favorite spices to the olive oil.
  • Puree extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and your favorite beans together in a food processor or blender, season to taste and serve with vegetables or pita chips as a dip.
  • Use in marinades or sauces for meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables.
  • Toast baguette slices under the broiler, rub slightly with a cut glove of garlic, and drizzle on a little olive oil for an easy appetizer.
  • Drizzle olive oil over pasta mixed with cooked seasonal vegetables for a light pasta dish. Add whole olives to maximize the flavor and the nutrient benefits.
  • Remember to use in moderation. A serving is considered 1 tablespoon of olive oil, which contains 126 calories and about 14 grams of fat.

Tip

The nutrient level in olive oil decreases the longer it is stored, so olive oil should be used within a few months to ensure maximum freshness and nutrient content.

Enjoy health benefits of olive oil by exploring these olive oil recipes.

 

References:

1. Michas G, Micha R, Zampelas A. Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: putting together the pieces of a complicated puzzle. Atherosclerosis. 2014 Jun;234(2):320-8. 

2. Ross A. Modern nutrition in health and disease (11th ed.). 2014. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 

3. Khurana S, Venkataraman K, Hollingsworth A, Piche M, Tai TC. Polyphenols: benefits to the cardiovascular system in health and in aging. Nutrients. 2013 Sep 26;5(10):3779-827.

4. Ros E, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Estruch R, Salas-Salvado et al. Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular health: Teachings of the PREDIMED study. Adv Nutr. 2014 May 14;5(3):330S-6S.