Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Wonders of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil is a staple in Mediterranean dining. About 2-3 tbsp per day is suggested. But why?

Short answer: it can help lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, help prevent cancer, and help cognitive function. It contains vitamins E, A, and K, iron, beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Annnnd, it's high in amino acids. 

Long answer: olive oil is packed with polyphenols. Polyphenols help protect your cells from damage. They help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce blood clotting and improve artery lining - all decreasing the risk of heart disease. Polyphenols have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce cancer risk. They can reduce microbial activity and infections. They also reduce oxidation and cell damage, which leads to degenerative diseases. 

A New England Journal of Medicine study (published Feb 2013 involving 7500 people in Spain and 5 years of research) shows that those who stuck to a Mediterranean diet with lots of olive oil or nuts had a 30% lower risk of major cardiovascular problems compared to those who followed a low-fat diet. They found that more than 4 tbsp/day can lower your risk of having a heart attack or stroke or dying of heart disease.

Researchers are currently studying the effect of polyphenols on bone and digestive health,  cancer prevention and improving cognitive function and memory.

But what about the fat? Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs) are the main fat in EVOO. Good news - MUFAs are the healthy fats. They can help lower cholesterol and control insulin. Don't just consume healthy fats, replace unhealthy fats with EVOO.

Does it have to be extra virgin? When it comes to olive oil, the less processing the better. "Virgin" means that it is physically processed, not processed with chemistry. Like milking an olive! "Extra virgin" is cold-pressed once. "Virgin" is pressed twice, lowering polyphenol content. So yes, it has to be extra virgin if you want the greatest health benefits.

  • Use EVOO to replace less healthy fats and oils. I have started using it in place of salad dressing and butter - it's not too shabby. 
  • One egg white + one tsp EVOO can be substituted for one whole egg in recipes to cut cholesterol.
  • The vitamin E in EVOO extends the freshness of baked goods.
  • Greener oil doesn't necessarily mean better oil. Greener comes from green olives. Paler oil comes from black olives.
  • Exposure to light, heat and air reduces polyphenols (the good stuff). Buy EVOO in a dark glass bottle and keep it in a dark, room temp cabinet (or the fridge). Stored properly, a bottle should last about a year before phenol levels decrease.

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