Written by Blair Koster
As complex and rich as wine, olive oil has offered humanity the gifts of health and prosperity. Since ancient times, olive branches have symbolized peace, the leaves have crowned the heads of champions and the oil has anointed warriors and athletes.
Olives are harvested around the world in the fall, so now is a good time to learn about the mighty olive’s nutritional benefits and how to select the right oil.
Polyphenols are the health superstars found in extra-virgin olive oil. “The higher the polyphenols, the better the olives are for you,” says Shauna Wells, owner of the Olive Oil Taproom in Henrico. The polyphenols help reduce the bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise your good cholesterol (HDL). Wells says extra-virgin olive oil should come in a dark bottle, have a strong aroma and taste like pepper in the back of your throat. The oil grabs your palate because polyphenols are still in the oil. The higher the polyphenol level, the more lingering the pepper and the greater the health benefits.
FYI: Today, the olive tree is cultivated in California, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina. About 800 million olive trees can be found throughout the world.
Many studies have found a link between high polyphenols found in extra-virgin olive oil and a lower incidence of coronary disease and stroke. Portuguese researchers have found that one antioxidant in the oil protects red blood cells from damage caused by free radicals and prevents hardening of the arteries. Other studies indicate that olive oil relieves arthritis aches, inhibits breast and colon cancer and even helps to control diabetes.
In addition to heart-protective benefits, olive oil provides all the natural flavors, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants of the ripe olive fruit. In fact, most doctors advocate lowering total fat and calories in your diet, and substituting butter, margarine and tropical oils with healthy fats like olive oil. Finally, olive oil satisfies hunger, promoting weight loss.
Olive oil has many uses in cooking, too. Think of olive oil as you would wine, and use different oils for different purposes. Robust extra-virgin olive oils add flavor to fish and meat and are great for making marinades. Wells, who frequently offers tastings to introduce her customers to olive oil’s many varieties and flavors, says a medium-intensity extra-virgin olive oil works perfectly on mozzarella, for bread dipping, in vinaigrette or sprinkled on steamed vegetables or baked potatoes. All-natural organic butter olive oil is infused with the rich flavor of butter and makes an excellent butter substitute, great for cooking with crab or shrimp, for dipping bread or to flavor pasta, mashed potatoes or rice. This type of olive oil is also good for baking. Wells recommends organic basil olive oil, which has a delectable tomato flavor, for use on summer salads or caprese. Use mellow, late harvest oil in baking or to make mayonnaise. Olive oil or virgin olive oil is good for frying and sautéing. Finally, take care to not excessively heat olive oil, since this will cause it to lose its taste and fragrance. Use a less expensive olive oil for frying, while adding more flavorful oil after cooking or at the table for dipping or dressing. Finally, keep in mind that a tablespoon of olive oil has almost 120 calories.
Perhaps olive oil really is ‘liquid gold.’ With just a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, you’re on your way to a healthier way of life.
“Extra-Virgin”—Top- grade, low acidity. This oil comes from the first pressing of the best handpicked olives. The oil is mechanically pressed, requiring no heat or chemicals. Extra-virgin olive oil has natural antioxidants that keep it from going rancid. Flavor, color and consistency vary due to different olive varieties, location and weather.
“Virgin”—Slightly more acidic and pressed from lower-grade olives. The oil may come from a second or third pressing of pulp, also mechanically pressed.
“Pure” —Also called commercial olive oil, it is extracted from pulp and pits left after the second pressing of lower quality olives. Heat, high pressure and solvents are used. “Pure” means that no non-olive oils are mixed in.
“Lite” or “Light”—In the U.S., this flavorless and often low-quality refined oil is sold under this name for a premium price, explains Wells. The “light” designation refers to flavor, not caloric content.
“Blended”—Most supermarket brands are
blended from many different varieties, regions and countries. Blending some oil high in polyphenols (antioxidants) with one that is not increases shelf life. Sometimes olive oil is illegally blended with canola
“Flavored”—Olive oil that has been infused with herbs or fruits.
“Cold Pressed”—An unregulated term, but it means olives are pressed at room temperature at the mill using no heat or chemicals. Virgin and extra virgin olive oils are the only truly “cold-pressed” types.
“First Press”—A century ago, oil was pressed in screw or hydraulic presses. The paste was subjected to increasingly high pressures. Today, most olive oil is made in continuous centrifugal presses, and there is no second press, which means this description is no longer relevant.
“Early Harvest”—Fall harvest olive oil. These oils contain the flavor of grass, green, green leaf and are pungent with higher polyphenols.
“Late Harvest”—This “winter” fruit is riper, so like ripe fruit, it has a light taste with little bitterness and more floral flavors. Contains notes of peach, melon, apple and fruity flavors.