Whether you’re sautéing a batch of sofrito or mirepoix, roasting potatoes, or whisking together a salad dressing, you’ll likely use some kind of cooking oil. Oils give dishes texture and help stop foods from sticking to the pan while they cook.
However, not all cooking oils are created equal. Extra virgin olive oil also adds ﬂavor and enhances the ﬂavors of the other ingredients. What’s more, it contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and is a key ingredient in the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. Because extra virgin olive oil is very gently processed without heat treatments or chemicals, it also retains many antioxidants, such as polyphenols, which contribute to its ﬂavor proﬁle
To qualify as “extra virgin” an olive oil must be unreﬁned (no processing other than ﬁltration), meet strict chemical quality parameters, and be free of sensory defects as determined by expert taste panels. The term “extra” in “extra virgin olive oil” simply means “special.” It does not mean the oil is more virgin than other virgin olive oils. As with wines, in the extra virgin olive oil category you will ﬁnd good, better and best qualities.
Olive trees are abundant throughout the Mediterranean region, and for centuries, families grew accustomed to olive oil’s delicious taste and versatility. Approximately 27 countries surround the Mediterranean Sea, with similar climates and foods. While each of these regions has their own signature dishes, they are based on similar food patterns of legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, herbs, spices, ﬁsh, and of course, olive oil. As Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, the “mother” of the Mediterranean diet is fond of saying, olive oil is what helps the vegetables go down! Indeed, what links all these countries is that they have cooked with extra virgin olive oil for millenia.
Today, due to olive oil’s good taste and favorable health beneﬁts, olive trees are being cultivated outside of the Mediterranean in places such as North and South America, China, South Africa, and Japan. Many scientists and health experts agree that extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest oils we can eat.
New research on more than 90,000 adults presented by Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that those who ate at least a half tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 19% lower risk of mortality during the 28-year study than those who rarely ate olive oil. Dr. Hu also debunked the myth that all fats make you fat. His research shows that while eating more saturated fats (the type of fats found in red meat and butter) is associated with weight gain, eating more monounsaturated fats from plant sources (like olive oil) is not associated with weight gain. In fact, replacing saturated fats with healthy fats like olive oil may help prevent age-related weight gain.
Don’t get caught up in the debate between whether “low-fat” or “high-fat” diets are better. One of the key points of agreement in scientiﬁc studies is that diet quality (i.,e, the type of fat) is much more important than the amount of fat in the diet. Healthy fats include monounsaturated fat (found in olive oil and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids (found in nuts, seeds, and ﬁsh). Although higher in calories, these foods help nourish your body and reduce your risk of heart disease and death.
In a recent Oldways webinar presentation with the North American Olive Oil Association, Dr. Rosa Lamuela-Raventos shared research on the beneﬁts of cooking with extra virgin olive oil. For instance, the presence of extra virgin olive oil enhances the bioavailability of bioactive compounds in foods and can help reduce inﬂammation. In other words, cooking tomatoes in olive oil for example can make the lycopene in tomatoes more bioavailable (easier for our bodies to access and absorb) than eating plain, uncooked tomatoes.
In fact, cooking with olive oil is a safe and healthy practice that has been a part of the Mediterranean diet for generations. Although cooking at medium and high temperatures decreases the polyphenol content of olive oil, Dr. Lamuela-Raventos’ research also shows that because olive oil has so many polyphenols to begin with, cooked olive oil still has the level of polyphenols necessary to prevent LDL oxidation (the creation of a dangerous type of cholesterol that can clog arteries).
Higher polyphenol count in an extra virgin olive oil means more health beneﬁts, more intense ﬂavors and aromas and better resistance of all these to heat.
Besides its many heath properties, the now-famous molecule found abundantly in high quality extra virgin olive oil also has a prominent role in the sensory quality. Region-speciﬁc ancient olive varieties that have been sharing the soil of certain trees and plants for centuries end up carrying the same polyphenols and bring out the same ﬂavors and aromas in olive oil, for instance, artichoke, apple and cinnamon. How fascinating is that?
As our friend Marie-Charlotte Piro of Olio Piro, a new award-winning high antioxidant extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany, reminds us, polyphenols contribute both ﬂavor and health. Enjoy extra virgin olive oil for cooking and as a ﬁnishing oil to dress up your dishes. You can check the website of the olive oil brands you’re using to see if the polyphenols/kg is listed. Aim for 350mg polyphenols/kg, and 700-800mg/kg is optimal.
At the end of the day, picking the best olive oil is a matter of taste – your taste. Whether you enjoy the ﬂavors of Mediterranean, Latin American Heritage, Asian Heritage, or African Heritage cuisine, with the right extra virgin olive oil in your pantry, the makings of a healthy and delicious meal are never far away.
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