I’ve been in love with olive oil for a very long time, since I was about 7 years old. Both my Sicilian-born grandfather and my father were magicians in the kitchen, conjuring up the most savory and delicious sauces, soups and pastas a hungry family could ever wish for. My father added olive oil to just about everything we ate. And he cooked with love. So, yes, I’m just slightly biased when it comes to olive oil.
There’s more to my love for it, though. As a cardiologist certified in nutrition and anti-aging medicine, I’m constantly on the lookout for superfoods… nutrition-packed foods that sustain good health, and keep you feeling and looking your best. After reading study after study exploring the various health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and finding that olive oil is really the “secret sauce” of the Mediterranean diet, I began to develop a new appreciation for olive oil… as a superfood!
Olive Oil Nutrition
Over the last few decades, most doctors and nutrition experts have dismissed the idea that “very low fat” or “fat free” is the way to go, in favor of a “there are good fats and bad fats” approach to eating healthfully. Because it is primarily a monounsaturated (as opposed to a saturated or hydrogenated) fat, olive oil falls within the “good fats” category.
Why is monounsaturated fat a good fat? It helps your body absorb certain nutrients and is itself a source of the antioxidant vitamin E; monounsaturated fat also supports many bodily functions. What better way to get vitamin E and absorb other vital nutrients in your veggies, salads, fish, chicken, and tomato sauces, than by drizzling extra virgin olive oil on them?
The FDA now recognizes:
“Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.”
But there’s more to olive oil than just being a monounsaturated, healthier fat.
Olive Oil Is a Superfood – Here’s Why:
Olives are rich in natural compounds called polyphenols, which plants produce to protect themselves against environmental threats. To humans, polyphenols offer antioxidant health benefits. Antioxidants support our immune systems and ultimately also help us protect against environmental toxicity by fighting free radicals which can damage healthy cells. Found not only in olives, antioxidant polyphenols are prevalent in foods like cocoa, hazelnuts, flaxseeds, strawberries, coffee tea and grapes, as well as herbs and spices like cloves, peppermint, and rosemary.
Which Olive Oil is the Healthiest?
With all the olive oils out there, how do you know which one’s the best fit for your healthy lifestyle? Do you go with the prettiest label? Do you opt for the least expensive brand? Since not all olive oils are equal when it comes to health, there are two differentiating factors you need to know.
First, how was the olive oil made? How much processing did it undergo? In other words, what “grade” of olive is it? There are four grades of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, pure or refined, and (just regular) olive oil. Extra virgin, which is cold pressed, is the highest quality, least processed grade of all olive oils. Basically, the less processing an olive oil undergoes, the better its flavor and greater its nutritional value. For this reason, the healthiest and tastiest olive oils are made simply by cold-pressing the olives. And to be truly extra virgin, an olive oil must pass a series of tests proving chemical composition as well as fresh olive flavor.
When you buy real cold-pressed olive oil, you’re really getting “olive juice,” a totally natural, unrefined oil pressed without the use of heat or chemicals from fresh, just-picked olives. The cold pressing technique helps preserve the nutrients in olives and natural polyphenol compounds that can be lost if the oil is processed using excessive heat or chemical solvents. It helps the olive oil maintain its vibrational integrity, closer to nature.
Now, I mention real extra virgin olive oil, because there are imposters lurking out there on the market – olive oils labeled as extra virgin, but that are cut with cheaper oils like canola oil. So, besides looking for “cold pressed” or “extra virgin” on the label, you want to make sure your oil is 100 percent extra virgin. There’s really only one sure way to know this: if the oil bears a reputable seal of certification. If you’re buying American olive oil, look for the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) certification, and if you’re buying imported oil, look for a similar certification (in Italy it is DOP).
Certified 100 percent extra virgin olive oil offers more polyphenol content than any adulterated or lesser grade olive oils. And more polyphenol content means more antioxidant potential, which will also help protect the oil from oxidation and lengthen its shelf life. This means that extra virgin olive oil, with the highest polyphenol content of all grades of olive oil, will retain its protective qualities longer if stored and used properly.
Note – if you’re buying flavored olive oils, make sure that they are cold-pressed. Technically, flavored olive oils can’t be certified as extra virgin because they contain ingredients other than olives.
How to Maximize Olive Oil’s Health Benefits
1. Choose certified 100 percent extra virgin olive oil.
I like COOC-certified oil because I like to buy American (despite my Sicilian roots). I know it’s been held to the council’s highest standards, and will deliver the purity and quality I’m looking for.
2. Consume a minimum of 2 Tbsp a day.
Based on the Predimed study, in which one group of participants realized cardiovascular benefits while consuming 4 or more Tbsp of polyphenol-rich olive oil a day, I actually think 4 Tbsp a day is preferable. For those who want to limit their fat consumption, 2 Tbsp per day is still beneficial.
3. Use with salads or colorful, organic steamed vegetables.
Talk about a healthy meal! We all know fresh vegetables and salads are good for us. Eating them with olive oil can help you better absorb all the vitamins and phytonutrients the veggies have to offer. Adding my signature olive oil dipping blend to the mix takes it to a new level of deliciousness. What a win-win-win!
So now I have my cake and eat it too: great memories and the knowledge that I’m treating my body to something that supports health!
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