Ode to Olive Oil

There aren’t many things that those in the nutrition world can agree upon, but olive oil is one of those special things that most everyone agrees is healthy. Extra virgin olive oil has a health halo that it has earned through historical use over the last few thousand years as well as the support of modern scientific studies. It is best known for its key role in the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is golden, thick, shiny, and oh-so tasty. I go through gallons of the stuff, and I want to share my love of this magical substance with you. 

Health Benefits of Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil has many merits in terms of its health benefits. One of its best known qualities is that it’s full of powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants help fight inflammation, which is indicted in contributing to most every chronic disease and condition including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and arthritis. Some research has even indicated that one of the antioxidants in olive oil is as powerful as taking an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen*. Olive oil is also famed for reducing lipid peroxidation which is a fancy term for damage to fat and cholesterol molecules in the body. Lipid peroxidation is likely a major cause of heart disease, so it’s important to eat the right things, like olive oil, to stop it in its tracks. Olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E and vitamin K. Vitamin E is a wonderful antioxidant in and of itself, and vitamin K is important for helping blood to clot properly. Olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon, similar to other fats, but these calories come with a myriad of health benefits.

Eating Olive Oil

Aside from its health benefits, olive oil is fabulously versatile and a great choice for cooking or fresh eating. Olive oil is chemically stable when heated and has a relatively high smoke point. It is low in polyunsaturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats. Comparatively, vegetable oils and canola oil are high in polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats have several chemical bonds which make them prone to damage during processing and heating. The problem with damaged oils is that they also do damage inside the body through the same process I mentioned above – lipid peroxidation. On the flip side, because olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat it is highly heat stable. The only down side to using olive oil for cooking is that some of the antioxidant content of the oil is lost when it is heated, so make it a priority to also get some fresh extra virgin olive oil in your life. 

My favorite cooked applications for olive oil are roasted and sautéed dishes. Toss almost any veggie in enough olive oil to coat, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and put it on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes at 425⁰F until spotty brown. Voila! You have delicious roasted veggies in no time. Try it with fresh green beans, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and more. I like to toss several together for a mixed veggie side dish. I dare you not to like it. Another easy way to cook with olive oil is to use a splash when sautéing most anything.

Olive oil also tastes wonderful fresh and is even healthier because it retains all its antioxidants. Use extra virgin olive oil to make a wonderful homemade vinaigrette by mixing 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add a dash of Dijon mustard and a little mayonnaise to keep it from separating. Whisk or shake in well-sealed container, and you’ve got quick and easy salad dressing. Try different types of vinegar and add spices for a variety of flavor options. Drizzle olive oil on fresh chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella cheese for a summer treat. Add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some chopped basil if you really want to give your taste buds a treat. For a quick pasta dressing, drizzle extra virgin olive oil over freshly cooked ravioli (or any type of pasta) with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and fresh cracked black pepper. 

Shopping for Olive Oil

Shopping for olive oil can seem a little tricky with all the options available at the supermarket. Add to that the loose regulations in the United States for standards defining extra virgin olive oil, and it can seem like a mysterious process to anyone. The good news is it’s easy to buy high quality olive oil (which will also be the healthiest choice) when you know what to look for. Choose cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil to get the highest quality possible. Olive oil has a grading system that is regulated by the International Olive Oil Council (IOC), but the IOC standards are not well enforced in the United States. Extra virgin oil is required to be fresh, pure, and without contaminates or any traces of rancidity. “Pure” olive oil and “light” olive oil will be of lower quality and may have contaminates present that detract from the healthfulness of the oil. Cold-pressed oil has been extracted from olives through applying pressure alone and without the use of high heat and chemicals, both of which are damaging to the quality of the oil. The “first cold press” is no different from other cold-pressed olive oils, so don’t worry about finding that designation on the label. 

Try to choose olive oil that is sold in dark colored bottles rather than clear glass or plastic. Exposure to light dramatically decreases the quality and shelf life of the oil. Olive oil that has a “harvest date” listed on the bottle is helpful for knowing you are purchasing the freshest oil possible.  Olive oil is best consumed within 18 months of harvest, so if the expiration date listed on oil is 2 or 3 years away, then you can’t be sure you are purchasing fresh oil. Olive oil that is grown and produced in California has more strict quality standards than other American produced oils and will likely be fresher because it doesn’t have to travel far to be sold. Look for the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal to be sure you are purchasing an oil with the highest quality standards. 

Unfiltered oil will have even higher antioxidant content and stronger flavor than regular cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil because of small particles of olives that remain in the oil. Unfiltered oil may have a cloudy appearance and will have a shorter shelf life than filtered oils. Bragg Organic Unrefined Unfiltered Extra Virgin Olive Oil is my favorite unfiltered oil.   

To sum up, look for cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil sold in dark colored bottles. Oils from California with the COOC seal will always be a safe choice. Look for bottles with a harvest date listed, and oils should be consumed within 18 months of harvest date. 

Storing Olive Oil

Store olive oil in a dark, cool place like your pantry to keep it fresh.  Don't keep it on your kitchen counter or next to your stove since light and heat will decrease the oil's shelf life.  

My love of olive oil runs deep and wide, as I hope you’ve surmised by now. I had originally planned to share a poem with you that I had written in olive oil’s honor. Yeah, I’m that crazy. But I decided it was too embarrassing to share my poem. I’m not that crazy. So you’ll have to settle for a recipe instead. At least the recipe title rhymes a little.      

Easy Caprese Salad

Ingredients
- 1 tomato, sliced
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
- ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions
Place tomato slices on a plate and sprinkle with salt.  Top tomato slices with mozzarella slices and sprinkle with chopped fresh basil.  Drizzle extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar over tomatoes and mozzarella.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve. 

Oh, what the heck. If you’ve read this far, you’re a true fan and you won’t judge my poetry. Right? 

“Ode to Olive Oil”

Olive oil, oh olive oil,

I love thee.

You make my heart so healthy,

And my hair shiny. 

I add you to my veggies.

Salad you adorn.

You make things oh so tasty.

Without you I’m forlorn. 

Extra virgin olive oil,

You are truly great.

In my cupboard you will be,

Until I’m ninety-eight. 

*http://www.nature.com/articles/437045a.epdf?referrer_access_token=2qm3Cg...

Angela Larson is a registered dietitian (RD) who works with Brookshire Brothers promoting real fresh, real delicious healthy foods and providing nutrition education to the community. She is also a clinical dietitian representing Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin where she does community education on food and nutrition. Food is her passion, so Angela loves trying new recipes and exploring the more holistic side of nutrition. Angela loves to cook, garden, and spend time outdoors. Look for Angela's monthly articles in Charm East Texas.