Oil, olive
Why Eat It

Why Eat It

Fragrant and delicate and subtle, the magic of olive oil has been enjoyed by people for thousands of years. Olive oil, a nutritionally impressive fat derived from the olive fruit, is a principal source of dietary fat in the Mediterranean region. The so-called "Mediterranean diet" derives less than 30 to 40% of its calories from fat, and the primary fat consumed is the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. Numerous studies have shown that those who consume the traditional Mediterranean diet (compared with people who consume an American style cuisine high in saturated fat), are at decreased risk of developing heart disease and cancer. And epidemiolgical studies show that they also live longer.

Researchers have determined that monounsaturated fatty acids (as well as minor constituents in olive oil) may reduce oxidation in coronary arteries and thereby reduce risk of developing atherosclerosis. Saturated fats (found in animal sources, butter, dairy, meat), on the other hand, have been linked to increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Whenever possible, olive oil should replace saturated fats. Another significant health factor attributed to olive oil is its ability to increase levels of cardioprotective HDL (the "good") cholesterol.

In addition to disease-preventive monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil contains polyphenols, flavonoids, antioxidants, and minor constituents (vitamin E, beta-carotene, squalene). Results from a study conducted in Spain suggested that squalene, polyhenol, and flavonoid compounds found in olive oil may help to prevent colon cancer.

In addition, studies conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that consumption of olive oil may be instrumental in the prevention of breast cancer. The study reported that breast cancer risk for women who consume olive oil more than once per day is reduced by 25% when compared to women who consume olive oil less frequently.

Olive oil is currently also being investigated for potential antibacterial and antifungal properties as well as its beneficial affect upon blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Though olive oil is a healthy, nutritious alternative to other fat sources, it is, nonetheless high in fat content and should not be consumed in inordinate amounts.


Olive oils are classified primarily by the amount of acidity, flavor, color, and aroma. There are hundreds of different types of olive trees, and most olive oils are blends of several varieties. In addition to the varietal differences, the oil derived from olives also depends on the ripeness of the fruit. When olives ripen (in the fall and winter), the olives change from green to dark purple. Olives harvested early will produce a richer, fruitier oil, and olives that are picked later on in the season, produce a milder oil with a less robust flavor and character.

The cost of olive oil is determined by availability of crop and weather conditions; and despite innumerable efforts to develop mechanized harvesting methods, olives for the best olive oils are often harvested by hand, a cost (about 50% of the harvesting cost) that is passed on to the consumer. Designer olive oil is becoming increasingly more popular with olive oils flavored with red peppers, herbs, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, among others. About 98% of the world's supply of olive oil comes from Mediterranean countries.

Olive Oil Labeling Terms
Extra Light: Olive oil that has been refined to produce a lighter color and flavor. Extra light olive oil is ideal for foods where an olive oil flavor would be intrusive (baking, for example). Extra Light has the same amount of calories and fat content as the other types of olive oil.

Extra Virgin: This is olive oil that is from the first pressing of the olives and has a low acid content and a delicate flavor. It is mechanically produced (pressed, rather than chemically refined), and has an oleic acid level under 1%. Industry standards stipulate that extra virgin olive oil must be free of acidity, expressed as oleic acid of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams (1%). But in addition to this quantitative analysis, olive oil is also put through a more subjective test by a panel of experts who taste and smell the olive oil and then rate it on a 9-point scale: The oil must score 6.5 or higher to receive "extra virgin" designation.

First Cold Press: These olive oils are derived from the first pressing, without heat applied, and are more expensive, and have a full, rich, flavor with much of the original olive's flavor maintained in the oil. Olive oils with "first cold press" on their labels indicate that they are of superior quality due to the fact that at no point in production has heat been used to process the olive oil.

Pure: "Pure" olive oil consists of a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil derived from the chemical extraction of oil from the remaining pulp leftover after cold pressing. These olive oils tend to have little flavor and are best used for sauteing rather than salads.

Refined: Olive oil derived from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial structure. Olive oil that is labeled as "Pure" or "Original" or "Light" indicates that the oil has been refined, rather than pressed.

Virgin: Virgin olive oil is mechanically produced, with acidity of between 1% and 3%. Virgin olive oil comes from the second cold pressing of the olives and left over pulp, and few producers in the U.S. market olive oil that isn't virgin.


If you are searching for a particular brand, it may be necessary to shop at a "gourmet" store. Keep in mind that ethnic stores often carry oils from their country of origin, sometimes at much cheaper prices. Buy a small bottle to see if you like this particular style of oil, as regional styles can vary in depth of olive flavor as well as harshness. Wherever you shop, be suspicious of olive oils that are packaged in clear bottles and displayed near the shop's window: Exposure to heat and light makes olive oil oxidate and turn rancid.


It is important to store olive oil in a cool, dark place as heat and light can cause rapid oxidation, which makes the oil turn rancid. Don't keep olive oil above the stove or oven. On the other hand, it is generally not advisable to refrigerate olive oil. Refrigeration does not harm the olive oil, but it will solidfy and be unusable unless brought back to room temperature.


Save rich, extra-virgin olive oil for salad dressings, uncooked sauces, for tossing with grilled vegetables, or brushing on bread--any instance where the olive-y flavors of the oil are desirable. Shop around and try several brands to find one with the flavor and intensity you prefer. Use lighter oils for sauteing and using in places where you do not want a prominent olive oil flavor.

To flavor your own oil, gently heat oil, add a few branches of slightly bruised fresh herbs or a few chili peppers and remove from the heat. Leave herbs or chilies immersed in oil for several days; strain and store as you would other olive oil. Use seasoned oil for drizzling over grilled vegetables, meats or fish. The chili oil is particularly good drizzled over pizza or bread.

Date Published: 04/20/2005
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