Ingredient of the month 12: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Yes, another one of my holiday snaps!
The brand of oil pictured here is very aptly named "Green Gold". It's an organic extra-virgin olive oil from a co-op in Crete, Peza Union. It was the best find of our holiday, and we brought a couple of bottles back with us too! Extra-virgin olive oil is not only totally delicious but a precious commodity for your health.

 What does "Extra-Virgin" mean?
The term "Extra-Virgin" means that the oil has been extracted from the olives by purely mechanical means and without the use of chemical solvents. It is also not subjected to temperatures higher than 30C, so the nutrients etc. are not degraded. It also has a low acidity; no more than 0.8. You can see from this that it's going to be purer, have a stronger, fruitier flavour and have more health-giving properties.
Olive oils have to go through strict laboratory and tasting tests before they are allowed to be called Extra-Virgin.
Owing to the way they are produced, extra-virgin oils will all taste and look different according to factors such as the varitey of olives used, the soil in which they are grown and the exact method of production. It's every bit as complex as wine!
Health Benefits:
  • Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, which you need to have in balance with ployunsaturates to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The main monounsaturate in olive oil is oleic acid. Scientific studies have shown that olive oil consumption can help regulate chloresterol (lowering levels of bad LDL and raising levels of good HDL chloresterol), it is antinflammatory, can prevent blood clots and lower blood pressure.
  • Olive oil can actually help build a more healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, too, by displacing 6 while not affecting 3. what this means in practical terms, is that if your diet is loaded with more 6s than 3s (which is likely, as 6s are commoner; it will be if you eat, say, lots of soya but no fish, flax or hemp seeds) than havng some olive oil will help redress the balance.
  • Amazingly, olive oil also lowers blood sugar.
  • It also contains antioxidants such as vitamin E, caratenoids and oleuropein. Antioxidants help prevent diseases such as cancer. 
  • The phenols oin olive oil can also guard against blood clots and have an antinflammatory effect similar to that of ibruprofen!
How to use extra-virgin olive oil:
It has long been known that the Mediterranean diet is much healthier than the Northern European/ North American, and one of the main reasons is their regular consumprion of olive oil, with all the above health benefits. When I lived in Greece, I found the local restaurants and takeaways would fry chips in olive oil and even drizzle it over jacket potatoes instead of using butter. Needless to say, the cooked vegetable dishes such as fassoulakia also contained often copious amounts.... I wouldn't use so much when cooking at home, as I know I get quite a lot of fat in my diet from other sources such as nuts and avocado. I think it's best to use an extra-virgin oil raw to maximise the health benefit: after all, its producers have gone to all the trouble of  extracting it at low heat, and you have undoubtedly paid more for that, too. Also, the smoke point,(above which the oil's composition will change and become harmful to your health), of extra-virgin olive oil is about 190C, which is pretty much at the higher end of average frying temperatures (170-200C), so saute with caution if you do use it for cooking, and only bake with it below 190C. (You can get away with more heat if using refined olive oil, as it has a higher smoke point.) To store extra-virgin oils so as to preserve the nutrients, keep them in a coolish place in a tightly-closed dark glass bottle.

And one final word of caution... remember that if you want to switch to using olive oil don't just add it to your diet: use it to replae another, less healthy source of oil, otherwise your overall fat consumption will be higher- and you know what that means...!



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