amaze magazine :: winter 2005

by valerie broussard

Heart-Healthy Olive Oil:
A key ingredient in the Mediterranean diet

I’ve always loved cooking with olive oil: some olive oils have a soft, smooth and buttery flavor, others fruity and peppery.  Just as wines are described as having depth and complexity, so are olive oils.  A drizzle over hummus, whisked into vinaigrette, or a garlicky pasta dish finished with olive oil can be so simple yet satisfying and healthy.  It’s what the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, French, North Africans and those in the Middle East, among others bordering the Mediterranean Sea, have known for thousands of years. 

The Mediterranean population includes olive oil as the major source of monounsaturated fats in their diets, contributing to significantly lower rates of heart disease than in Americans.  Monounsaturated fats from sources such as olive oil and avocados raise the “good” HDL cholesterol.  However, saturated fats from animal sources such as whole-milk dairy products and red meat raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels.  High LDL and total cholesterol levels lead to increased risk for heart attack and stroke. 

Although the majority of research has been focused on heart health, there have also been studies to determine whether consumption of olive oil affects incidence of cancer, arthritis, blood pressure levels, diabetes, and even liver and gallbladder health.  See the books listed below or click on this link to read more about those studies:  In the book titled 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, Dr. Andrew Weil’s first suggestion is to go through your pantry and “throw out all oils other than olive oil” and “if you do not have any extra-virgin olive oil on hand, buy a bottle and start using it.” 

Olives are fruit, and olive oil is essentially its juice.  Like most other fruit, olives can bruise easily and must be handled carefully.  Many smaller producers still handpick their olives to ensure better quality oil, as bruised fruit begins to deteriorate faster.  Stems and leaves are removed and the olives are washed with cold water.  The practice of making olive oil dates back to as early as 3000 B.C. and is mentioned several times in the Bible.  Techniques have changed somewhat in recent years to accommodate the increased demand.  Traditionally, large millstones crush the olives into a paste, but now more and more producers use stainless-steel blades.  The next step is called malaxation, or mixing of the olive paste.  Then, another process separates the oil and water from the paste.  And finally, the paste goes into a separator, using centrifugal force to spin off the water, resulting in a first-pressing of green, cloudy and opaque oil. 

Americans are more accustomed to clear oils, which have been filtered, yet some of olive oil’s nutrients may also get filtered out.  Cloudiness is actually a virtue, a sign of high-quality.  Keep an eye out for cold-pressed oils.  Heat can destroy some of the healthy antioxidants in olive oil.  Once you’ve chosen an olive oil, keep the bottle away from air, heat and light, which can cause the oil to oxidize and turn rancid, a very unhealthy side effect of improper storage.   

The bottom line: Look for olive oils that are extra-virgin, first cold pressed, and preferably unfiltered, from a small producer who hand-picks the olives.  Olive oils should have an expiration date because unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age and should be consumed no longer than 1 to 2 years after being bottled.  High-end retailers and the internet are your best bets.  

For the ultimate foodie, there are olive oil producers that go the distance to create an even higher quality tastier product. For example, Lucini ( makes a premium select extra-virgin olive oil with perfectly ripe 100% Italian estate-grown olives that are pressed within 24 hours of being hand-picked.  Their olives are grown in small quantities without the use of chemicals, herbicides or pesticides. 
Most olive oil producing countries abide by quality criteria and label definitions developed by the Madrid-based International Olive Oil Council (IOOC).  The United States is not a member of the IOOC, but the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has created its own set of standards that surpass those of the IOOC. 





It’s Greek to me…How to decipher an olive oil label:

“Extra-Virgin”- From the first pressing of the olives, it retains most of its flavor and nutrients.  At 0.8 grams of oleic acid or less per 100 grams, it is one of the least acidic olive oils.  The terms “extra virgin” and “first cold pressed” tend to go hand and hand.

“Virgin”- from the second pressing, it contains 1 to 3 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams.

“Refined” or “Pure”- Starting with an acidic olive oil, it undergoes processing such as filtering and chemical refining to achieve a lower acidity level, about 1.5 grams or less of oleic acid per 100 grams.

 “Olive oil”-when labeled without the words “extra virgin,” is chemically refined oil that should be avoided.  It is a blend of refined and virgin oils, and is considered the least flavorful and has fewer health benefits.

“Light”- most likely olive oil blended with other vegetable oils

“Cold Pressed”- oil that has been extracted without exceeding 80° F.  Higher temperatures can alter the fatty acid chemistry.  Heating the paste from first pressing of the olives will achieve a greater yield on the second pressing but compromises flavor.

“Unfiltered”- Olive sediment will settle to the bottom of the bottle, it may become rancid more easily.  It is best to use unfiltered olive oil within 3 to 6 months of bottling.

What is oleic acid?  It’s the main fatty acid in olive oil that is easily processed by the body.

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