Olive oil has been a staple food for centuries from the Mediterranean Basin. It is one of the few natural oils that can be pressed directly from the fruit, which eliminates the need for chemical or high heat processing. These types of processing techniques resemble the oil refining techniques used for home heating oil and result in an oil tainted with chemicals and rancidity. You don’t want to eat that type of oil. What you want to choose is a high quality olive oil from a reputable source.
Revered for It’s Nutrient Content
Olive oil has been revered for it’s nutrient content and the resulting beneficial effects on health. There are actually hundreds of healthful compounds in olive oil called phenols, which have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticoagulant properties. Olive oil also contains the important fat soluble vitamins E and K. While there are many types of olive oil to choose from, only the highest quality will offer the greatest health benefits.
Olive Oil is Good Fat
The most basic classification of fats is according to the degree of saturation: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which is known to be heart healthy.
Chemically speaking, monounsaturated fatty acids have two carbon atoms that are double bonded to each other making one double bond, hence the word “mono”. These bonds are relatively stable, but the fat is liquid at room temperature. Examples of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, avocado oil, and the oils from almonds, pecans, peanuts and cashews.
Classification By Length of Carbon Chain
Another system of classifying fatty acids is by their length of the chain of carbons.
Long chain fatty acids have fourteen to eighteen carbons and can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Examples are stearic acid which is an eighteen carbon saturated fat found in beef tallow. Oleic acid is the eighteen chain monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) is also in this category.
Most of the polyunsaturated fatty acids are omega 6 fats, which are found in commercial vegetable oils. These tend to be out of balance with the omega 3 fats found in eggs, fish and meat, especially when the animals are grassfed.
In our culture today, most people get much too much omega 6 as compared to omega 3. This imbalance disrupts prostaglandin production and this in turn drives inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the GI tract, depressed immune function, and cancer.
Classification of Olive Oils
There are three varieties of olive oil based upon how much processing the oil has undergone.
1 – Extra Virgin — this is considered the best as it is the least processed. It must come from the first pressing of the olives. It is made from young olives which have less acidity. This type of olive oil is guaranteed not to have any chemical solvents and it is rich in antioxidants and nutrients.
2 – Virgin — this oil is from the second pressing and is a lesser quality. It may also be somewhat bitter.
3 – Pure — this oil is refined olive oil that has had some extra virgin olive oil added to it. The refining process removes free fatty acids and this lowers acidity. However, the antioxidants and the vitamins such as vitamin E are also removed. Pure olive oil is sometimes labeled as just “olive oil”.
There is also “light” olive oil on the market. This is simply a marketing gimmick. It is not a real classification and it is completely unregulated. This type of olive oil may be cut with other less desirable oils.
There is also unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. Studies show that the pulp in the unfiltered oil has anti-inflammatory benefits as well as good preservation of enzymes.
Clearly, the most desirable variety to purchase is the organic, unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil. However, even with this classification, you must be careful of how the oil is processed.
Processing of Olive Oil
The oil must be processed in a certain way. Even extra virgin oils are exposed to heat when processed by pressing. This procedure may generate heat up to 200 degrees F or higher, even when it says “cold pressed”.
The traditional method of slow grinding by hand does not produce heat and the more modern method of centrifuging the oil is also a low heat method. These low heat methods are what you want in an oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Should Not Be Used in Cooking
There is a problem with even a little heat in the production of the oil. The problem is that the heat destroys the enzymes and other delicate nutrients like vitamin E. What this implies is that extra virgin olive oil should not be used in cooking. The heat will break down all the delicate nutrients and enzymes inherent in a quality raw oil and render it rancid.
Cook with saturated fats like ghee, butter, tallow, lard and coconut oil (though coconut oil has a medium smoke point so not good for high heat cooking), which stand up to heat well. Avocado oil also has a higher smoke point and may be used for higher heat cooking. As a bonus, drizzle extra virgin olive oil over already cooked and other cold foods for flavor and nutrients.
Features of the Highest Quality Olive Oil
- It should be extra virgin olive oil from the first pressing.
- It should be from young olives.
- It should be certified organic so that there are no pesticides or herbicides.
- It should be centrifuged or extracted without heat.
- It should be unfiltered, however, this may shorten the shelf life and is harder to get.
This high quality olive oil should be stored out of direct light as light and heat will promote rancidity.
Recent Problems With Olive Oil
There have been a lot of recent articles about the problems with imported olive oil that has been cut with cheaper, more highly refined oils such as soybean and corn oil. These are oils you never want to have as they are tainted with pesticides and more importantly, from genetically modified plants. You need to find a good source of extra virgin olive oil from a producer you trust.
Which olive oil do you prefer? Leave a comment and let me know!