Kathy Kolasa: The right olive oil delivers benefits
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Q: I decided to try to use olive oil instead of vegetable oil. Standing in front of the olive oil section I couldn’t figure out what to buy. Can you help? KP, Farmville
A: You share the same dilemma with many of us. On a recent trip to Boston I went into a great market that had an entire aisle of olive oils just from Italy in a very wide range of prices. Wow. They were delicate, medium, intense or robust. Like wine, the taste of an olive oil varies depending on its farm’s soil, climate, native varietals and local traditions. While it was fun to explore all the choices, at home we typically use extra virgin olive oil from California, purchased in a regular grocery store.
William McAllister, a third-year Brody medical student wanted to answer the question of what olive oil to buy, but first has this to say about why to use olive oil. Olive oil is now popular in the U.S. due to its use in the Mediterranean Diet. This way of eating focuses on eating less processed food, filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and consuming smaller quantities of animal protein, with the preferred animal protein being fish and seafood, and ... the use of olive oil.
This diet and olive oil use have been linked to a variety of health benefits. Olive oil has compounds such as polyphenols — types of compounds found in plants that help them with functions from ultraviolet protection, to growth, to defense from infections. Benefits are believed to include reduced blood sugar levels and LDL (“bad” cholesterol). Polyphenols also reduce risk of cardiovascular disease such as coronary heart disease and stroke; improve insulin sensitivity; and may reduce risk of breast cancer. Many of the health benefits seen with olive oil use are associated with practicing a Mediterranean diet, but the evidence suggests that just using olive oil is beneficial.
At the store, you might be tempted to buy the one with the idyllic picture of a Mediterranean countryside or one in your ideal price range, but not every olive oil is alike. What are you looking for in an olive oil? If you are looking for health benefits, then look for either virgin or extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Other types are refined olive oil and Pomace oil which use different processes of getting the oil out of the olive and are not linked to those health benefits. And while flavor and mouthfeel might be important to you, this column focused on health benefits.
Even if you have a bottle of EVOO in your hands doesn’t necessarily mean that you have what you think you have. There is no U.S. regulatory agency overseeing what can be labeled as EVOO, thus there are a lot of imposters. A University of California, Davis study found that 6 out of 10 imported and 1 out of 10 California EVOO brands failed to meet USDA and International Olive Council standards to be called EVOO. The standards are for taste and color and the chemical make-up of the oil. Look for quality seals on the bottle from organizations including the USDA Quality Monitoring Program, North American Olive Association, California Olive Oil Council and Extra Virgin Alliance.
The main difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil comes in the make-up of the oil. EVOO meets higher taste and odor standards and has some chemical differences. For health benefits, virgin olive oil is lower in polyphenols and doesn’t have lignans, a type of polyphenol with antioxidant effects. EVOO has the lignans, which may lower cancer risk — virgin olive oil doesn’t.
Just as virgin olive oil has different polyphenols than EVOO, different EVOOs also have different levels from one another. With no regulation on the number of polyphenols that must be in the oil, each EVOO can differ significantly from the other. Scientists can’t say if EVOO with higher polyphenols have any difference in cardiovascular health benefits. Store brands generally don’t have quality seals, so you don’t have the guarantee that of quality taste and chemical composition.
Some of the less expensive brands like Pompeian and Filippo Beria do have quality seals. The color of the oil does not affect the health benefits, so it’s best to buy oil in dark-colored glass containers which will slow the natural breakdown of polyphenols when exposed to light.
You can also prevent this breakdown by storing your olive oil in a dark area like a kitchen cabinet. Lastly, you can prevent losing the polyphenols while cooking by keeping oil heating time to minimum, adding it later in cooking stages, and when cooking for longer periods of time, add small amounts frequently to replenish the oil. I hope you will try olive oil soon.