Power Food: Olive Oil

Health Food Phoenix

Olive oil is one of the most highly touted heart healthy foods, but like most foods that are ‘good for you’ there is a wide amount of variation in the healthfulness of a food, depending on the version of the food you buy. Olive oil is no exception. Olive oil can be extra virgin, virgin, first cold pressed, chemically extracted, etc. Let’s look at the benefits of olive oil and how you can ensure that you are getting the best olive oil for your health.

Olive Oil Processing

Extra virgin olive oil is produced from mechanically squeezing the oil out of olives in a temperature-controlled environment (often referred to as ‘cold pressed’) so that heat does not play a role is disrupting the naturally occurring unsaturated fats and antioxidants in the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is considered the highest quality olive oil from both a taste and nutritional perspective.

Olive Oil Acidity

Virgin olive oil differs slightly from extra virgin olive oil in that is has a higher acidity, <0.8% vs. 3%. The acidity is technically a measure of the amount of free fatty acids found in olive oil. Acidity is a little known, but effective marker, of olive oil quality. The type of olive, soil, pressing, and processing of the olive oil are all reflected in its acidity. Certain types of olives will naturally have lower acidity than others, but as long as an olive is cold pressed within 24 hours of picking it should have an acidity of 0.8% or less. Olive oil lovers also find that acidity levels greater than 1% lead to an unpleasant taste.

Healthful Components of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The Mediterranean diet is often described as being ‘rich in monounsaturated fats’ of which extra virgin olive oil is championed as being the key to this fact, (one Spanish survey found that 13% of calories consumed were from olive oil).

However, the Mediterranean diet is more than extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil is more than just monounsaturated fats. The polyphenol antioxidants found in the highest abundance in first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil have been implicated in providing neuroprotection and improvements in vascular health. Newer research has found that extra virgin olive oil contains “electrophilic fatty acid nitroalkenes” a class of compounds that can stimulate anti-inflammatory gene expression. The monounsaturated fats found in olive oil are good, but the antioxidants and bioactive compounds found in extra virgin olive oil are better.

Getting the Best Out of Your Olive Oil

The California Olive Oil Council recommends buying olive oil that has been harvested and cold pressed in the last 18 months (12 months is even better).

-Once you open the bottle is it best to use it within the next 30 days.

-Heat wreaks havoc on the antioxidants in olive oil (this is why it is cold pressed), so it is best used on cold dishes or cooked with at very low heat.

-Store your olive oil in a cool dark place to further protect the antioxidants in the oil from going bad.

-Find a brand that you can trust. An analysis from the Olive Oil Center at UC Davis found that 69% of extra virgin olive oils they tested did not meet the standards set from the International Olive Council.

-If your olive oil has a bitter or spiciness to it, that is good! This is a reflection of a high antioxidant content.

Olive oil is very good for you, but take the time to ensure that you are actually getting the right kind of extra virgin olive oil, which will confer the health benefits that you are looking for. If you weren’t already convinced about the benefits of extra virgin olive oil, I leave you with the results from one more study. An analysis from the PREDIMED study showed that for every 10g/d of extra virgin olive oil participants consumed, their associated risk of cardiovascular disease decreased by 7%.


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