The Mediterranean diet is well known for its health benefits. One reason for this is the plentiful use of olives and olive oil. The olive tree spread throughout the Mediterranean basin 6000 years ago and is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world. All three major religions have used or continue to use olive oil for special religious ceremonies. This history and the respect that was given to olives and olive oil was formed by the wisdom of people thousands of years ago who were using olive oil regularly and saw its first-hand benefits. Here is what research is showing us today that gives support to our ancestors’ intuition and practices.
Olive oil has been shown to:
- Protect against cardiovascular disease by lowering LDL cholesterol. In one study, they monitored the food intake of 100,000 men and women who were free of cancer, heart disease, and stroke at baseline over a 24-year period. After adjusting for major diet and lifestyle factors, compared with non-consumers, those with an olive oil intake over ½ tablespoon per day in place of other fats such as butter, had a 15% lower risk of any kind of cardiovascular disease and a 21% lower risk of coronary artery disease. Olives are also high in vitamin E, and olive oil increases nitric oxide and therefore circulation.
- Help with oxidative stress, pain and inflammation which could help many arthritic conditions. Gary Beauchamp PhD director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and Paul Breslin PhD have noted that he bitter taste of olive oil contains a compound called oleocanthal which prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, the same way ibuprofen works. A study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in 2015 looked at oleocanthal for rheumatoid arthritis and found that it helped with chronic and acute pain. A study published in Molecules in 2014 discussed the effect of hydroxytyrosol a compound in olive oil that has a protective effect on the nervous system.
- Help with improving bone density. Oleuropein one of the polyphenols in olive oil was found in one study of 870 people aged 55-80 to reduce the risk of fractures by 51%.
- Helping with blood pressure is mainly attributed to the phenolic compound called oleuropein. Oleuropein is an antioxidant and is also a known antiviral.
- Helping with insulin sensitivity. The oleic acids and polyphenols in olives and olive oil lower blood sugar as early as two hours after a meal by aiding insulin action. There is research supporting that diets high in monosaturated fats found in olives and olive oil along with their antioxidants lessen the risk of type two diabetes.
- Helping with depression. In a six-year study from Spain published in 2011 with over 12,000 volunteers it was determined that over the six years those who had a diet higher in trans fats like margarine had a 48 percent greater risk for depression that those who avoided those fats and instead had olive oil and other polyunsaturated fats such as those from fatty fish.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is rich in polyphenols, a group of plant compounds that acts as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. This is not true for refined olive oil (ROO) also called “light” or “pure”, which involves additional heat and chemical processing. Virgin olive oil (VOO) is refined without the use of heat or chemicals and its health profile is just below EVOO.
Olive oil will degrade when it is exposed to oxygen, light, and heat. Therefore, once a bottle is opened, storage in a cool, dark place will prevent rancidity. You can refrigerate or even freeze olive oil without damaging the oil although it may change the appearance of the oil. Some people buy larger amounts of olive oil and store it in a highly polished stainless-steel container called a Fusti. Depending on the olive oil it can stay fresh from 3 months to 2 years.
Adulterated olive oil vs Unadulterated olive oil
In January of 2016, 60 minutes broadcasted a story on how 7000 tons of olive oil were found by Italian authorities to be adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils to be shipped out mainly to the U.S. The scam was cooked up by organized crime and is part of a larger 16-billion-dollar food crime enterprise which the Italians call the AgroMafia. In the segment, Tom Mueller author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, reported that he estimates that half the olive oil in Italy and up to 70-80% of the olive oil in the U.S. does not meet the legal grades for extra virgin olive oil.
To be assured you are buying unadulterated olive oil the bottle should have the proper certification seal. If the olive oil is from Europe, it should have the seal of the International Olive Council or (IOC). If it is from America, it should have the seal of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). In all three cases rigorous testing is done to assure quality.
It is best to avoid olive oil in plastic containers. It is also best to ignore the “best by” or “bottled on” date and instead focus on the pressing or harvest date which should be within the past year. Better oils will include this on their label.
Curing the debate between Green vs Black Olives
Olives are usually sold in a salty brine and can contain as much as 60 mg of sodium per olive. For those who have high blood pressure, you could rinse most of the salt off with water. This brine-curing is done to offset the bitter flavor that olives have when first picked from a tree. This bitterness is attributed to the concentration of the valuable oleuropein in it and it makes the olive almost inedible when first picked, however, it is how you would assess the quality of fresh olive oil when tasting it. The better olive oils will have a bitter taste on your tongue and in the back of your throat with enough pungency to induce a cough. There are different curing methods to remove some of that bitterness. Water-curing which removes less oleuropein than brine-curing and lye-curing which uses either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide followed by oxygen gas if the olive is to be turned from green to black. This method is mostly used in canned olives. Lye-curing is time and cost efficient but results in the loss of subtle flavors. In the process of turning green olives black ferrous gluconate is added to maintain that black color. Sun/air curing is used in rare cases. The Thrubolea variety from Crete is an example of an olive left to cure on the tree.
All olives are green and only turn black naturally if allowed to ripen long enough. Olives first turn from green to light brown, then to a vibrant red and purple, to black. There is no difference in nutritional value from what I have read. Most olives that you buy are green because they are picked before ripening. Ripened black olives generally need greater care in handling.
The olive tree is treasure to all of us. Olive trees start bearing fruit around 5 years and can live for 1000’s of years. Olive trees are drought resistant and their root system can regenerate themselves even if the tree is destroyed by frost, fire, or disease. According to Olive Oil Times there are 139 olive varieties. While I have not yet had to opportunity to taste many of these olives, here is a sample of about 14 different varieties you might want to look for according to www.seriouseats.com .
When scrutinizing olive oils, experts use the discerning criteria of the best sommeliers. They look for fruitiness, pungency, complexity, harmony along with the bitterness mentioned before. Want to try the best olive oils in the world? Check out the winners from the New York International Olive Oil Competition. https://bestoliveoils.com/
I have no doubt that increasing the use of high-quality olives, and olive oils will have a positive effect on our health.