The Real Healthy Oils
I’m a firm believer in nutritious food also being delicious. Food is more than just a collection of nutrients our bodies need. It is also, for most of us, enormously pleasurable. And that’s one reason behind the success of the Mediterranean Diet. Not only is it hailed as one of the healthiest in the world, but it is also one of the tastiest and most social.
The Mediterranean Diet has an impressive list of potential benefits. It is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In short, it appears to be good for the whole body, including the heart and brain.
There are many aspects of the diet thought to contribute to these health benefits. It is characterised by plentiful vegetables, herbs and spices, fruit, legumes and wholegrains. They eat seafood, poultry and eggs regularly, but have red meat less often. They enjoy moderate amounts of dairy foods, principally as cheese and yoghurt (both fermented foods).
Bread is a staple, but rather than slathering it in butter, they dip it in extra virgin olive oil. They enjoy wine, but don’t binge drink.
A slippery star
The use of extra virgin olive oil extends beyond bread and plays a starring role. Since Roman times, extra virgin olive oil has been used to cook, drizzle and flavour food. And while we are on the subject, let’s put to bed the idea that you cannot cook with extra virgin olive oil.
Recent studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil is very stable in cooking, even at high temperatures. In fact, it is far safer than common cooking oils, including grapeseed, brown rice and canola oils.
The Romans and Greeks believed extra virgin olive oil to be therapeutic and modern science is confirming this belief.
In the famous PREDIMED study, they gave three diets – a control group on a low-fat diet and two Mediterranean Diet groups, one supplemented with nuts and another with extra virgin olive oil. They followed the groups for almost five years.
Over 7000 people started the trial at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. In these people in particular the results were pretty spectacular. Those consuming the most extra virgin olive oil had a 35% lower risk! In fact, for every 10g of extra virgin olive oil they consumed daily, the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by 10%.
Winning hearts and minds
So, what’s so special about this oil? Firstly, it is one of only two common oils to come from a fruit (the other being avocado oil). This makes it very different to seed oils.
Where seed oils have to be refined with heat, high pressure and/or chemicals to make them edible, extra virgin olive oil is literally the juice squeezed from fresh olives. This gentle process brings with it an array of natural chemicals found in the fruit including polyphenols known to have protective antioxidant effects.
One of them is called oleocanthal and this is what gives extra virgin olive oil that wonderful peppery taste. Oleocanthal is anti-inflammatory, working in much the same way as a low dose of ibuprofen. This makes it helpful in managing conditions such as osteoarthritis and in reducing the chronic level of inflammation that leads to diseases including heart disease. In the brain, it has been shown to protect neurons and this may be the mechanism by which extra virgin olive oil rich diets reduce the risk of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And in the lab, it has been shown to have anti-cancer effects.
The oil is also rich in a chemical called squalene. This concentrates in the skin where it helps to protect cells from sun damage, perhaps explaining the lower incidence of skin cancer in those following traditional Mediterranean diets.
Where it gets really interesting is that not only are these beneficial compounds remarkably stable during cooking, the classic combination of extra virgin olive oil and vegetables also increases your body’s uptake of all the antioxidants present.
Around the middle
If you’re worried about gaining weight by being liberal with extra virgin olive oil, rest assured it may actually help with weight control. In general, a Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with better weight control, especially less harmful fat around the waist. One Spanish study found those who consumed extra virgin olive oil compared to sunflower oil were more than a third less likely to be obese.
That might be due to a compound produced when we digest the type of fat present in extra virgin olive oil called OEA (oleoyethanolamide). OEA induces satiety and seems to help us to eat less later.
All up, extra virgin is pretty remarkable and when consumed regularly as part of a Mediterranean style, plant-rich diet, there is solid evidence this delivers us many health benefits. The ‘extra virgin’ is key to note. Bottles labelled ‘olive oil’, ‘pure olive oil’ or ‘light olive oil’ have been refined or blended and this results in a loss of those fabulously protective plant chemicals.
Fortunately, in Australia we have some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world and our own Cobram Estate is one such example. They were recognised as the producer of the healthiest extra virgin olive oil at the 2017 Health & Food EVOO Awards in Spain and more recently were voted by CHOICE as the best extra virgin olive oil from 23 supermarket oils. We should be most proud of our Australian olive oil industry and I urge you to give them your support. Your health and your taste buds will thank you too.