You know that a food has made it when nutritionists love it and people hold tastings.
Whether you’re in Italy, Spain, Greece or Dubuque, you can gather with friends to swirl bread in various olive oils and declare them mild, buttery, fruity, peppery, earthy and such. And you have the joy of knowing it can be good for you.
Once considered an exotic ingredient, olive oil has become a staple in American kitchens. There’s a wide variety on grocery shelves, and many people are unaware of the distinctions. These differences can be quite startling, though, and important to your well-being.
Different names, same content
Olive oil is graded as regular, light or extra-virgin olive oil, the fat. Whichever you choose, the calorie contents will always the same: 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. All are high in monounsaturated fats – the “neutral” fat found in plant oils that is credited not only with lowering total cholesterol, but protecting HDL (the “good” cholesterol), while reducing levels of LDL (the “unhealthy” or “bad” cholesterol we have all learned to fear and despise).
“We suggest getting 25 to 30 percent of total dietary calories from fat,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D., Director of Nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Of those fats, 50 percent should be monounsaturated fats from foods (nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, fish) and from the healthiest cooking oils – such as olive oil, peanut oil and canola oil.”
Olive oil is actually the preferred choice among plant oils, since it boasts the highest percentage of monounsaturated fats and the greatest levels of phytonutrients of any plant-derived oil. This is important because phytonutrients are antioxidants that protect plants from too much sunlight, blight and pollution. In humans, they provide anti-aging benefits and fight diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
But, remember, all olive oils are not created equal.
The cold facts
“The best olive oil is cold-pressed,” says Jennifer Flora, M.S., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch, Tucson. “It’s made just the way it sounds: The oil is literally pressed from the olive in a temperature-controlled environment that protects it from chemical alteration by heat. Then it’s minimally processed.
“Don’t buy any olive oil that doesn’t have the words ‘cold-pressed’ on the label, because extraction methods using heat and chemicals can damage phytonutrients,” advises Flora.
Pressing is not the only concern, however. It’s important to understand the grades of olive oil:
Extra virgin. The least refined, best-tasting of all olive oils, this is the premium product. It comes from the first pressing of olives and is full-flavored and fruity with an acidity level of less than one percent. It is, as you’d expect, the most expensive grade.
Virgin olive oil. Also a product of the first pressing, this oil has a slightly higher acidity level of one to three percent.
The next grade is sometimes known as “pure” or “refined” olive oil, which means it didn’t meet the taste and quality guidelines for virgin oil. To improve its taste, it’s been further refined, removing some micronutrients and making it less desirable nutritionally. It has a milder, blander flavor and higher acidity than extra virgin.
Light olive oil. This is refined olive oil blended with extra virgin olive oil, resulting in a lighter flavor and color that many prefer for cooking and baking.
Burning & double-dipping
As you cook with olive oil, keep in mind that the healthful properties are perishable. A light sauté is usually fine. Repeatedly using the same oil to fry foods or burning the oil not only destroys the antioxidant properties, but may possibly be carcinogenic.
“Heat oxidizes the chemical structure of the fat, and oxidized chemicals can be part of the process that starts cancer in the body,” Powell says.
Corn oil and other vegetable oils high in omega-6 fats are particularly susceptible to this type of oxidization, making them even less desirable than olive oil for cooking at high temperatures.
Keep ‘em cool and dark
Once you’ve selected your olive oil in your kitchen, protect it. Many people store oil next to the stove for convenience, a practice Powell discourages. She recommends keeping oils in the refrigerator to protect against oxidization and preserve phytonutrients.
Okay, refrigerated olive oil does sound – and look – strange. According to Powell, the oil undergoes a process known as winterization, in which it becomes semi-solid, but this does not damage the quality or flavor in any way.
“Just set it out at room temperature for 10 minutes and it will mix itself,” she says.
Also, once you have opened a bottle, try to use it within six months: Olive oil, like produce, is best when it’s fresh.
If you prefer non-stick, olive-oil sprays for cooking, Flora suggests avoiding commercial brands that may contain propellants. Instead, pour your usual olive oil into a handy spray canister or kitchen spritzer, and you’re all set.
Take a culinary chance
As you explore the many opportunities for incorporating olive oil into your diet, don’t be afraid to experiment in salads and recipes. The thousands of varieties of olives offer distinct nuances in taste that vary by country, crop and region, in much the same way that wines and honeys do. That’s why tastings are such a treat.
Olive oil is more than a favorite ingredient a healthy diet. You can make it a culinary adventure. Bon appétit!