If you were told there was a medicine you could take that that would help you live longer and, more importantly, be healthy for those extra years wouldn’t you take it? Of course you would.
Well there is. All hail Extra Virgin Olive Oil - the bringer of long life, vitality and delicious dishes.
You're pretty sure olive oil is good for you but you have no idea why. And there are so many different labels. No wonder you're confused. I was.
Why are some olives black and some green? Why can't you get fresh olives at the supermarket? Why are some stuffed with anchovies? What do all the different labels mean? Can I cook with it? What are the health benefits?
And, most importantly, which is best in my martini?
All good questions which I will do my best to answer here.
Olive Oil is the juice of olives. So let's talk about the olives.
The colour. All olives start off green and they transform as they get older on the tree through brown, red, purple until they become black. So the colour is merely an indication of how 'ripe' they were when they were picked.
Green olives are usually picked in late autumn in Europe when they have a firm texture and lovely, nutty flavour. Darker olives are picked during the winter and they're softer, richer, and meatier.
Where are all the fresh olives? You're enjoying a sun-drenched holiday in Greece. You see a luscious-looking olive, ripe on sun-warmed tree. You pick it, pop it in your mouth, crunch and….. spit it straight across the field.
Raw olives taste horrible! They are are extremely bitter and virtually inedible. This is due to a compound called oleuropein, a brilliant mechanism the olive tree has to stop animals and insects eating their precious crop. And it would stop us too if our ancient ancestors hadn’t found a way to make them edible.
Olives need to be cured by either packing them in salt or submerging them in a liquid solution of lye or brine. Different methods are used across the world but they all work to remove a lot of the compounds that make the fruit so bitter, and softens the flesh to make it more edible.
Fish stuffing? Really? Olives are often 'stoned' and the cavities stuffed. Traditional stuffings are pimentos in USA and anchovies in Spain. It is likely these traditions arose to offset the bitterness of the olives. Today you can buy olives stuffed with cheese, ham, tuna, cream and much more. And if you want to stuff your olives with weird and wonderful things in the privacy of your own home, who am I to pass judgement?
What’s the difference between Extra Virgin and other oils?
Basically it’s in the processing. Extra virgin olive oil is essentially freshly pressed fruit juice. Traditional methods involved pressing the olives but nowadays they are macerated and gently spun to extract the oil. The temperature is carefully controlled - hence 'cold pressed'. This helps preserve the natural benefits of the olive.
Refined grades of olive oil – such as “light” or “pure” oils – are made using high heat or chemicals which can reduce the beneficial compounds significantly. Many refined Olive Oils are blends of different grades and labelling can be confusing
What about 'Virgin' without the 'Extra'?
Virgin Olive Oil is still the first press of olives but the oil has a higher acidity, usually due to the processing method. This impacts the flavour of the oil and indicates that many of the healthful benefits may have been impacted. In other words, Extra Virgin Olive Oil tastes better and is healthier for you. But virgin olive oil is still better than other cooking oils and can cost less than EVOO.
There is no doubt that Extra Virgin is significantly more beneficial. But not all EVOO are the same. In a 2015 study of Italian EVOO the researchers measured the health-giving compounds and found that oils labelled 100% Italian were significantly higher than European Union blends and that those with a designated POD were the highest. This suggests that we need to pay close attention to choosing the best EVOO from the nutritional viewpoint.
Should I chose Cold Pressed? Or First Cold Pressed?
Traditionally olives were pressed using weights to literally squeeze out the juice. The output from the first press was the highest quality but there might be subsequent 'presses' to squeeze out every last drop. The oil from these presses were considered inferior.
Today, to be officially certified “extra virgin,” an olive oil must be first cold pressed. The term ‘cold pressed’ or ‘first cold-pressed’ are therefore redundant as the Extra Virgin label covers it all.
According to the Olive Oil Times:
“Cold pressed,” “first pressed” and “first cold pressed” are all used to convince consumers that the olive oil they are purchasing is high quality.
Outside of the European Union, there are few to no rules or regulations on how these terms can be used, so they can be applied to any type of olive oil.
The terms that really matter are “virgin” and “extra virgin” which means an olive oil meets the internationally-recognized quality standard for the grade.
I'm really healthy so I don't need Extra Virgin do I?
Olive Oil been regarded as a health food for thousands of years.
Even before food scientists and researchers spent millions of dollars searching for the specific elements, our ancestors knew the Olive Oil was the secret to a long, healthy life.
Olive Oil is loaded with stuff that is good for our bodies. Healthy fats, vitamins E and K, and heaps of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. These help our bodies protect themselves by supporting cell repair and reducing free-radicals.
Ok that all sound impressive but why do I need it if I’m pretty healthy already?
Stick with me.
EVOO is great at lowering harmful cholesterol in the body by reducing the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and leaving the ‘good’ cholesterol there to do it’s great work. That’s going to help protect you from heart disease.
(And don’t feel smug if you haven’t been diagnosed with high cholesterol. Most people have no idea their arteries are clogging up until they have a heart-related issue. Prevention is better than cure!)
Many studies have shown that the anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties help our bodies protect themselves. It supports cell repair and reduces free-radicals which can destroy cells, cause various cancers and make us age more quickly.
That’s going to help reduce your incidence of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and other joint issues as well as reducing risk of stroke, and keep you looking younger for longer.
Plus evidence suggests that replacing other fats and oils with EVOO may help you lose weight. One study showed that an olive oil-enriched diet brought about greater weight loss than a lower-fat diet in an 8-week comparison.
Scientists are a cautious bunch and it’s hard to get them to give a clear ‘yes, it works’. But there are numerous studies that suggest Olive Oil has a preventative effect on certain cancers.
The researchers in a study in 2015 said that women who ate the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil had a 68% relatively lower risk of developing breast cancer compared to women in the control group.
And a 2019 study of the effects on Colorectal cancers stated “In conclusion, the consumption of OO should be suggested in a healthy diet instead of other types of oils.”
There is also some evidence Olive Oil may offer protection against age-related cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. A 2109 study reported “We therefore propose that extra-virgin olive oil is a promising tool for mitigating the effects of adverse vascular factors and may be utilized for potential prevention of late-onset Alzheimer disease.”
Blimey! That’s good enough for me. Order me a gallon of Extra Virgin!
I'll bet you've heard that you shouldn't cook with olive oil. Let's send that myth up in smoke.
For many years we believed that cooking with EVOO was a no-no. The internet is still awash with scare stories. But more recent research has proved that wrong.
It's all to do with smoke points which is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke. At high heat oils can become unstable as the fatty acids break down and suffer oxidative damage. Polyunsaturated oils are particular susceptible to this.
Olive oil is a monsaturated fat and resists this breakdown extremely well. It has a relatively high smoke point which makes it a perfect cooking oil for frying and roasting. And studies have shown that the health properties are unharmed by heating below about 200degrees celsius. You might, however, notice some reduction in the flavour.
Now, about that martini....
Shaken or stirred? I am rather partial to a very dry martini, straight up with olives. Or even a 'dirty martini' which has the olive and brine added.
I love the look of a beautiful martini glass with crystal clear liquid and olives on a stick. And the first ice cold drops on my tongue. I'm actually salivating just thinking of it!
But why olives? Not only does it look pretty, but it doubles as a salty treat. The olives must be green, usually Spanish, crisp and firm with a real bite. Three olives are traditional. One is nibbled to prepare the palate and two are saved until they have absorbed the flavour of the martini and are the perfect snack at the end. Chin chin!
A longstanding superstition suggests martinis should be served with one or three olives (never two or four).
The origins of this superstition remain a mystery, but are adamantly followed by seasoned bartenders - and me!
We’re convinced! Just how much of this miracle juice should we be drinking?
You might be surprised to know that both the US FDA and the European FSA recommend a minimum of 1.5 – 2 tablespoons (around 20g) of EVOO every day in order to get those health benefits.
If, like me, you were indoctrinated with the idea that all fats were bad, this might be hard to equate. Let go of those old ideas. They are just downright wrong. We need fats. And most of all we need Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
As with all nutrition advice, there's always a caveat. Fats may be good for you but just like any other food to much is too much.
Cut down on other oils and fats. Reduce your butter and replace with EVOO. Salad dressings are the most obvious way to get more into your diet but there are other ways.
Use EVOO instead of vegetable oils for shallow frying
Dip your bread in EVOO for a delicious accompaniment to your meals
Drizzle it over cooked vegetables and grilled or roasted meats
How else do you enjoy your Olive Oil?
Nutritional quality https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889157515000265
Impact on Alzheimer’s https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31521394/
Weight loss https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20545561/