By Soon Chai
Besides protecting you against high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, olive oil may also help to prevent brain damage and failure of your adrenal glands.
Oh, good news if you're overweight, olive oil can help you lose weight too.
Why does olive oil has such good health benefits?
Many researches claim that it's the monounsaturated fat in the oil that primarily supplies the health benefits. But a few more extensive studies prove that the major contributor to better health is the phytonutrients (nutrients from plant sources) in olive oil rather than its fat profile.
Let me show you an interesting clinical study conducted in 2005 where the effects of olive oil on arterial elasticity were measured. (For your info: The greater the elasticity of your artery, the less vascular stress will be inflicted on your arteries, thus minimizing your risk to heart attacks and stroke.)
Participants were asked to eat a serving of 60 g of white bread and 40 ml of olive oil each morning for two consecutive days.
The experiment was carried out in two stages where during the first stage, they took extra-virgin olive oil loaded with polyphenol antioxidants. During the second stage they received olive oil bearing only 1/5 the phenolic content of that in the first stage.
|White Bread||Olive Oil||Phenolic Content||Arterial Elasticity|
|Stage 1||60 g||40 ml||5 / 5||Increase|
|Stage 2||60 g||40 ml||1 / 5||No significant changes|
The results show that consumption of olive oil rich in polyphenol antioxidants exhibits an increase in the arterial elasticity while the measurement taken from the oil consumption low in antioxidants shows no significant changes in the arterial elasticity. High arterial elasticity means it can prevent development of atherosclerosis (or stiff artery) caused mainly by plaque formation on the inner wall of artery.
Other studies also support the healing nature of antioxidants in olive oil rather than its fatty acid profile.
So, the truth is out — the potent phytochemicals (polyphenol antioxidants) in olive oil benefits your cardiac health more than the common belief of just the monounsaturated fat.
But I'm not saying that monounsaturated fatty acid (omega-9) in olive oil is relatively useless. In fact, it does help to minimize chances of developing atherosclerosis. Let me explain.
Atherosclerosis (or hardening of arteries) is the prime culprit that leads the way to high blood pressure. Once you're diagnosed with atherosclerosis and high blood pressure, it means some of your arteries, already narrowed by plaque, could be completely blocked by new blood clots anytime, thereby cutting off oxygen supply to your heart and brain. That's why you're exposed to higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
So, how does atherosclerosis come about?
To make it simple to understand, ignore oxidation and free radicals activity for the time being. The first thing you must know is: HDLs and LDLs are always present in our blood. If you keep an ideal balance of high HDLs and low LDLs in your blood, the blood will circulate freely around your body without hindrance, which indicates excellent health.
But alas, you cannot prevent oxidation of LDL particles.
Trouble begins when some oxidized LDL particles (particularly oxidized by oxygen free radicals) moving in the bloodstream inadvertently penetrate the gaps in the endothelium (inner lining of the arterial wall) and get "stuck" there.
If no one comes to rescue the "stuck" oxidized particles, they'll start to attack the arterial cells and cause infection.
When your body detects such "damage" or injury on the artery, it'll trigger platelets to clump together and start the blood-clotting action so as to facilitate healing, simultaneously sending a medical team of cholesterol, triglycerides, calcium and protein down to the site to repair and heal the injury.
This series of actions leads to inflammation.
Onset of inflammation actually sets the stage for healing. But when free radicals and other microorganisms, which enter your body through dietary intake or respiration, persistently attack the infected area, it will trigger a destructive chain reaction that hinders or even impairs the healing process.
As a result, plaque (a mixture of calcium, protein, triglycerides and some cholesterols) forms on the arterial wall and causes the blood passage to shrink in diameter.
It is the calcium that hardens the plaque, not cholesterol or triglyceride.
When inner diameter of blood vessel becomes smaller, your heart will need to work extra hard to pump blood through the narrowed artery to the rest of your body to bring oxygen and nutrients to the cells and tissues.
This raises your blood pressure level. (That's how most people get high blood pressure.)
If plaque forms on inner wall of coronary artery (that links to your heart), further blood clots will contribute to the narrowing of artery, eventually blocking the blood flow resulting in heart attack.
If this blocking action happens in your carotid artery (which goes to your brain), you'll get stroke.
To prevent development of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease and stroke, you need to eliminate the cause of atherosclerosis.
So what can you do? That's where olive oil comes into play.
Monounsaturated fat (oleic acid — aka omega-9) in olive oil can potentially help to reduce number of LDL particles and maintain (or may slightly increase) number of HDL particles.
HDL particles are needed to rescue the trapped oxidized LDL particles. So if there are less HDL particles around, you can expect to see more trapped LDL particles along the inner lining of your arterial wall.
But it's a misnomer to say that more stuck LDL particles may slowly build up to clog arteries. Stuck LDL particle itself is hypothetically not harmful.
It becomes harmful only when it gets oxidized and damages the cell that triggers inflammation which in turn may lead to plaque formation when the condition gets out of control.
Despite the misinterpretation in the common belief, it still sounds logical to call LDL particle (also commonly known as LDL cholesterol) the "bad" cholesterol while HDL particle the "good" cholesterol since keeping a low LDL cholesterol level and high HDL cholesterol level will reduce the odds of plaque formation and relieve you from all sorts of heart related problems.
Another thing worth mentioning is, even without any oxidized LDL particle caught in the gap on arterial wall, you're still somewhat vulnerable to atherosclerosis because free radicals may keep "bullying" the arterial cells creating arterial injury, and triggering inflammation.
That's why keeping low LDL and high HDL levels is crucial though not the sole solution in marking down your health risk.
You can't restrict those free radicals finding their ways into your body as they appear literally everywhere (unless you stop eating and breathing).
But you can minimize their violent attack by quitting smoking if you're a smoker (because smoking induces severe free radical formation and attack) and eating food containing rich supply of antioxidants. And one such food is olive oil.
Olive oil carries powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients such as oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, oleocanthal and others which can effectively help you hamper the reaction of oxidation caused by free radical attack, reducing the risk of cell and tissue damages.
When an injury takes place, your immune system needs to take care of both healing the injury and stopping the chain reaction incited by oxidation. It can easily get stressed up this way and hence may lead to gradual development of atherosclerosis.
When you consume more dietary antioxidants, these super fighters will help to ease the load off your immune system, allowing it to focus better on repairing and healing injury.
Hence, antioxidants can stop the oxidation of LDL particles too.
That's why in recent years, doctors, nutritionists and dietitians have been promoting the health benefits of eating more plant food that carry huge quantity of antioxidants — your intimate "bodyguards" against free radicals. And olive oil is one of them.
I know this sounds confusing but olive oil does promote blood clotting which elevates the risk of blocking the artery, leading to heart disease and stroke.
I did mention earlier that it won't, didn't I? Let me clarify.
All fats or fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated (except for omega-3 fatty acid in flaxseed and medium-chain fatty acid in coconut oil), may increase blood stickiness (caused by clumping of platelets) resulting in blood clotting that may upset the normal blood flow.
Olive oil comprises predominantly oleic fatty acid (about 77%), so it can't be spared either as the bad guy who increases the blood clot risk that can impede normal blood circulation.
But fortunate enough, olive oil contains some good guys too to balance the act - anti-inflammatory compounds such as hydroxytyrosol, oleocanthal and omega-3 to counteract blood clotting, thereby reducing the risk posed by oleic fatty acid.
In a nutshell, olive oil still benefits your health after all. And to reap maximum health profits from olive oil, you need to understand some basics about its production process too.
Not all olive oils are created equal — their quality are in essence, graded based on production method, acidity level and flavor.
Although different grades of olive oil can mix together to produce other grades and types of olive oil, there are 3 principal grades that I think are more useful for you to know.
Let's run through the process briefly to help you get some basic ideas.
Harvested olives will first go through grinding and pressing using heavy granite millstones or modern stainless steel rollers to extract the oil. At this point, no chemical is added so as to originally preserve the nutrients, aroma and flavor in the oil.
For the oil to be graded top quality, "cold pressing" is required. It means the frictional heat emitted during pressing and grinding should not exceed 86°F (i.e. 30°C).
Olive oil that is extracted in such "cold pressing" manner yields grades of extra-virgin olive oil or virgin olive oil depending on its acidity level (amount of free oleic acid).
The lower the acidity level, the better the quality and thus, the greater benefits for your health.
Some virgin oil is further processed after the first chemical-free pressing, especially when it bears poor flavor and an acidity level of more than 3% (i.e. not fit for human consumption anymore).
They are sent for refining to reduce its acidity level so that they can be re-used for consumption again.
But because this type of refined oil is produced in presence of high temperature, chemicals, and filtration, their quality will drop dramatically in terms of flavor and nutritional value.
Refined oil usually bears no color, odor and flavor, thus they are often blended with virgin or extra-virgin olive oil to make it look and taste better. This mixture forms another grade called pure olive oil (also labeled as just olive oil) in some places.
Olive oil can also be further chemically processed to form another 2 grades called olive-pomace oil and lampante oil.
But we're not interested since they don't benefit your health much, especially lampante oil that is totally inedible, so you don't have to know them for now.
Let's recap the 3 most useful grades of olive oil to identify their quality.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil - This type provides the highest quality among the three for the following reasons:
Made from absolute mechanical means (i.e. no chemical processing takes place).
Comes from the first "cold press". Meaning, oil from second and subsequent pressings are not included.
Acidity level holds for less than 0.8% (some premium quality can go as low as 0.225%).
Burst with highest amount of polyphenolic antioxidants that help you fight against free radicals in your body and prevent illnesses effectively.
Packs a strong flavor and aroma - taste fruity and buttery.
Virgin Olive Oil - Same as extra-virgin grade, it's made from the "cold processing" method. But it's of lower quality due to:
Made from the first "cold press" as in extra-virgin oil but carries higher acidity level of up to 2%.
Great taste but slightly inferior to that of extra-virgin grade.
Pure Olive Oil (aka 100% Olive Oil) - The lowest quality among these three because:
Mixture of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil.
Lacks strong flavor due to its much higher content of the flavorless and odorless refined oil (85%) than virgin oil (15%).
Though its acidity carries only less than 1.5% (may seem better than some virgin grade), its overall nutritional values have fallen drastically in the chemical-bound refining process.
The only good thing about this Pure Olive Oil grade is its longer shelf life.
In conclusion, to best benefit your health, I strongly recommend that you include extra virgin olive oil as a vital dietary intake in your daily meals. Although it's pricier, it's definitely worth the investment as far as your health is concerned.
As opposed to plant, olive oil dreads light, heat and air.
Over-exposing olive oil to these environmental factors can expedite the breaking down of oil nutrients and make olive oil taste awful. Worst of all, ingestion of such rancid oil may elevate your risk for heart disease and cancer.
So, better be safe than be sorry.
Unfortunately, most stores are brightened up with light, and most olive oils are bottled in clear containers that expose the oil to the light for as long as they stand on the shelf.
Here's a tip — pick the one that stands in the shade at the back instead of the one in front. Also, don't pick those on the top shelf where it's exposed to direct light.
Plastic container is less resistant to heat and may produce toxic residue when olive oil reacts with it, causing a harmful change in the oil's chemical and healthful properties. So, don't pick olive oil that is kept in plastic container.
Get the type that uses tinted glass to hold the oil. Tinted surface can help the oil keep out light. Though it costs you more, it's the wisest choice.
Take note though, if you suspect the oil has been left unsold on the shelf for too long after noticing the production or pressing date or "use by" dates on the label, or you even see thick layers of dust collected on the bottle, don't buy.
Last but not least, make sure the cap is tightly sealed without any sign of tampering, to make sure no air seep through the cap to spoil the olive oil and destroy its health benefits.
Keep your olive oil best in a cool (room temperature works fine), dark place away from the stove or other heat generating appliances. That way the oil won't "see" the light and "feel" the heat so easily and turn rancid.
Here's a tip for you if you wish to save cost and buy olive oil bottled in a clear container — transfer it to a tinted glass which helps to keep out light or non-reactive metal such as stainless steel.
If temperature surrounding olive oil rises, then keep the oil in the fridge.
But oil turns solid when chilled, so you might find it difficult to use.
Therefore, before you refrigerate the oil, you may want to pour a small amount into a separate container for frequent use.
Alternatively, you can bring it out of the fridge earlier, say an hour before use, for it to thaw.
When transferring olive oil into separate container, make sure the container's interior is completely clean and dry before you use it to store the oil as oxygen in water may oxidize the oil, increasing its acidity level and depreciating its nutritional value and health benefits as a result.
Also, you should minimize exposing olive oil to air and light too much during transfer, hence be nimble with your action and don't do the transfers too often. For example, don't transfer the oil from container A to B, only to realize container B doesn't fit well and you go on to transfer from container B to C.
You'll spoil the oil this way. So, make up your mind before you transfer. And always screw the cap tightly to block air from entering. These little acts can help preserve the phytonutrients in olive oil as well as extend the oil's shelf life a bit longer.
Another thing is, Spanish researchers had found that whether you keep virgin olive oil under perfect condition or not, the quality and nutritional values will gradually deteriorate over time.
So, make sure you use the oil as soon as you buy it, don't store it like wine. It doesn't get better. I suggest that you buy at most 1 liter at a time and try to finish it within 3 months.
Just bear in mind, the longer the unconsumed olive oil stays on your shelf, the lower its nutritional value and thus, its benefits on your health.
Before I gain insight into olive oil, I followed blindly what others (including some so-called "experts") had said about using olive oil. But after in-depth studies and researches about olive oil, and even trying that in my diet, I found that olive oil is best consumed uncooked.
Think about this: Olive oil is pretty sensitive to heat due to its high (86%) unsaturated fat content — 77% monounsaturated fat + 9% polyunsaturated fat. For this reason, in olive oil extraction, careful measures are taken to ensure the temperature with which the oil undergoes does not exceed certain level.
For example, frictional heat resulted from "cold" mechanical pressing and grinding should not exceed 86°F (30°C) in order to obtain virgin or extra-virgin quality.
If it does exceed (even slightly), more oxidation will take place and the quality of olive oil will drop as a result (the oil will then be sent for refining and no longer be graded as virgin or extra-virgin).
So, imagine when you cook, fry, stir-fry, pan-fry or even deep-fry with the oil, heat produced in cooking and frying will definitely shoot way above that "cold pressed" temperature, then how could you not be expecting a poorer oil quality out of cooking or frying with the oil?
Even refined olive oil is susceptible to oxidative damage caused by free radicals despite its higher smoke point than virgin grade (which holds a smoke point of 350°F or 180°C).
Many people thought that by not hitting the smoke point in cooking / frying they can safely consume the oil and retain its nutritional values and health benefits. Misconception!
The truth is, olive oil begins to oxidize in presence of heat. As heat increases, oxidation of olive oil speeds up which generates more damages and leads to a drop in quality. When temperature finally reaches the oil's smoke point, it'll start to break down completely and generate toxins that can harm your health.
If you think about it, it's plain common sense.
If heat is not a concern, then why bother to ensure the oil is produced under 86°F for extra-virgin and virgin grade which carry the most nutrients?
That alone provides concrete evidence that olive oil will degrade as temperature rises, whether or not it reaches its smoke point.
Remember earlier I told you about a research made by Spanish that even when olive oil is perfectly kept away from heat, light and air, it'll still degrade over time. That just shows how defenseless and fragile olive oil is.
If someone says it's fine to moderately heat the oil so as not to destroy its nutrients, I'd say it's merely wishful thinking on his part.
Another obvious evidence is if you think olive oil will only degrade upon striking its smoke point, then you can virtually place it anywhere in your house since your room temperature will never reach 350°F (that can turn you into a roasted human meat).
But researchers advise to keep the oil in the refrigerator to keep out even heat that goes a few degrees above room temperature. Isn't that clear enough to infer that olive oil is sensitive to heat besides light and air?
Knowing its frailty, smart inhabitants of the Mediterranean region mostly use olive oil as salad dressing or in cold food. As they're able to absorb the most nutrients and gain best health benefits from olive oil (without altering the oil's original healthful properties via heating), these people are less prone to cardiovascular disease and stroke.
I mean, eating olive oil will definitely benefit your health, but if you use the wrong method to eat it, it may not do you any good, or worse, impair your health even more than before you take the oil.
Here I show you how you can ingeniously use olive oil for greatest health benefits.
As extra-virgin olive oil carry the most health-boosting nutrients, I particularly love to use it as dressing or condiment for some of my raw diets. You can dip the bread in it too if that's what you prefer.
If you can't stand its strong flavor, you can choose the milder-flavored virgin oil. But that also means you'll ingest less nutrients.
You get what you pay for.
But as far as health is concerned, spending a few more bucks for the extra-virgin oil to stay in tip-top health is well worth it.
What if you don't want olive oil to affect the taste and smell of your dish?
You can use a type called lite olive oil. Oil producers create lite olive oil (aka light olive oil or mild olive oil) mainly for such purpose.
They put the oil through extreme fine filtration process without heat and chemicals to eliminate most of its color, flavor and aroma while retaining as much nutrients as the virgin grade.
This makes the oil suitable for strong-flavored food that doesn't want competition from the fruity flavor of olive oil. Now you can enjoy both the goodness from olive oil and the delicious flavor your food brings you.
"What other options do I have to enjoy olive oil?", you might ask.
If you squeeze out your creative juices, you'll realize you can add olive oil into many kinds of food like desserts, cookies, bread, pancakes, muffins, hash browns, and etc besides salads.
Did you see that? It can be added to hash browns. But didn't I say not to heat the oil?
Well, you can use another healthy oil (particularly coconut oil which won't degrade so easily when heated) to pan-fry the hash browns and dribble some virgin olive oil over them for a more flavorful taste during serving.
That's just one example, you can add the oil in any cooked food.
But make sure you add the oil only during serving as the heat from the hot food can affect the oil's healthful nutrients.
See? You actually can be very versatile with olive oil usage as a healthy food in your diet.
But don't limit the usage to just culinary.
There are various other useful ways to make the most out of olive oil, check out the resources below. You'll be amazed at what you're going to find out.
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil From Spain by Columela
The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to Do with Olive Oil by Carol Firenze