Sally explores the world of olive oil, taking a look at the research behind its benefits and whether it really is as healthy for us as we think.
Over the past few years, olive oil has become a staple item in most kitchens, with many of us favouring it for its perceived health properties that make it preferable to other long-standing favourites. But what benefits does it really have? And is it as good for us as we think?
Olive oil is a major component of the Mediterranean Diet which is felt to be one of the healthiest. Not only has it been associated with increased life expectancy, but it has also been linked to lowered risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. So surely as an integral part of this diet, olive oil must have some pretty hefty benefits when compared to other oils? Let's see...
What are the benefits?
Olive Oil is rich in mono-unsaturated fats - considered a healthy dietary fat, as opposed to saturated and trans fats - which can help to benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control (which is especially helpful if you have type-2 diabetes). Mono-unsaturated fats have also been found to help increase our good cholesterol, lower our bad cholesterol, and may help normalise blood clotting- making olive oil great for helping keep our hearts healthy.
Olive Oil is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential for normal brain and body development. Not only this, but deficiencies in omega 3 have been linked to depression, and in pregnancy, could lead to an increased risk of behavioural issues in offspring.
Olive oil is known for its anti-inflammatory benefits, which derive from its polyphenols - anti-inflammatory compounds which has been found to decrease production of certain molecules known for increasing inflammation.
Now, you could be mistaken for thinking that because olive oil has such a high number of health benefits, that adding tons of the stuff to your diet is good for you. In fact, olive oil, despite its healthy attributes, is actually high in calories, just like other oils. So whilst including it in your diet is recommended, pouring it generously over every salad or pasta dish you make is not exactly going to do good things to your waistline! Instead, use in moderation - just a drizzle will do. It is still a fat after all!
The different types of olive oil
One thing that is a point of confusion for many are the various types of olive oil available. Whilst we all know that certain olive oils are better for us than others, trying to understand which ones we should be buying is easier said than done.
The popularity of olive oil in recent years has meant that there are now loads of different brands and types of olive oil, all competing for your attention. Taking a stroll through the oils aisle in the supermarket could leave any of us feeling confused over which oils we should be buying.
In the EU, olive oils are classified according to how they are made, which gives us the different types of olive oil - from virgin olive oil to refined olive oil and just plain olive oil.
Virgin olive oil
The production method of virgin olive oil means it is exposed to very low temperatures - a process known as cold pressing, which helps to minimise deterioration in the oil. The process should not involve anything other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.
The various types of virgin olive oil are determined generally by which stage in the pressing process they are created, as well as their free acidity levels. Overall, though, the process involved in producing virgin olive oil means it should contain the highest levels of nutrients and goodness out of all of the variants of olive oil, with extra virgin olive oil considered the healthiest variant.
The variants of virgin olive oil are classified as follows:
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) - considered the healthiest, and tastiest form of olive oil, EVOO comes from the first pressing of the olives, and has 0.8% or less free acidity, expressed as oleic acid concentration. There are other various laboratory tests required to be classified as Extra Virgin, which include tests on peroxide and wax levels in the oil, and testing for defects in taste, aroma and texture, known as organoleptics. EVOO has been found to have stronger anti-inflammatory properties than other types of olive oil, thanks to its greater concentration of polyphenols.
- Virgin olive oil - free acidity of not more than 2% and organoleptic defects of less than 2.5
- Curante virgin olive oil - between 2-3.3% acidity.
- Lampante virgin olive oil - acidity of more than 3.3% and not fit for human consumption!
Refined olive oil
You might be mistaken for thinking that 'refined' olive oil is really high quality; however, refined olive oil means that it is made from virgin olive oil in refineries where the techniques and temperatures used may mean it is stripped of much of its goodness. It has an acidity level of no more than 0.3%.
'Pure' olive oil
Simply labelled as 'olive oil', this is created using a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil, and will have an acidity of no more than 1%.
How can you use it?
The benefits of olive oil could lead you to believe that you should be using it as an all-purpose oil. But in fact, this is not the case.
If you're using a very high heat when cooking, then the recommendation is generally not to use olive oil. The low smoking temperature (it smokes at between 365 - 420 degrees F) means that it will smoke over a high heat. At this point, some research has suggested that its beneficial compounds start to degrade - potentially releasing harmful compounds.
Instead, olive oil should be kept for use as a salad dressing, or when cooking over a lower heat - such as sautéeing vegetables. Using olive oil in this way also means you make the most of its distinctive flavour, and keeps all of the beneficial nutrients contained in olive oil.
If you're looking for healthier oils that are suited to high heat cooking, then try oils such as coconut, or rapeseed that maintain all of their nutrients when heated to a high temperature.
While it's not recommended to drown your meals in olive oil, or to use it at high temperatures, the overall benefits of olive oil make it a great addition to many meals, and could actually help to improve the health of your heart and perhaps increase your omega 3 levels. In moderation, it could even help you to lose weight by improving control of your blood sugar levels.
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