Olive Oil: a Health Benefits and Tasting Guide
Olive oil is a staple ingredient in many diets globally. Consumed and produced in the highest quantities in Greece, Spain, and Italy, this oil has become an important part of the American diet in more recent years. Olive oil is the oil obtained from olive trees. These trees grow best in the Mediterranean climate, where in some areas it has been used since the 8th century before the common era.
Olive oil is produced by pressing olives and collecting the oil produced by this mechanical extraction. It is important for the olives to be perfectly ripe to avoid the production of overly bitter or rancid oil. Once produced and with the proper knowledge, the quality can be determined by tasting the oil. This is important knowledge to have because many olive oils sold in the American market are lower quality, and therefore do not have the same health benefits as higher quality oils. Some of the characteristics of a quality oil are fruity, bitter, and peppery notes. The bitterness and peppery taste of a good olive oil will exist in your mouth, but it will not linger long in the forefront of your taste buds. Any lasting bitter taste indicates a lesser quality of oil. Many people are not used to these tastes in olive oils because we do not often come in contact with fresh, high quality olive oils that have been properly stored. But they are flavors that should be present, and that indicate good quality of production. Undesirable flavors are any similarities to wine, which points to improper storage of the olives before they were pressed, leading to fermentation. Rancidity is also a negative flavor, which can come from improper storage post production.
Another way to understand the quality of olive oil is through looking at the acidity levels: Extra Virgin Olive Oil must have an acidity level of 0.8% or less (Extra virgin meaning that the extraction process was entirely mechanical, with no chemicals used), while Virgin Olive Oil (also entirely mechanical production), must have an acidity level between 0.8%-2%. Any olive oil with an acidity level higher than 3% should not be ingested.
Olive oil is commonly used in cooking and as a light tasting oil for salad dressings. It also has religious meanings and cosmetic uses. Although olive oil is commonly used for cooking, the form of consumption that allows for the body to absorb the highest level of nutrients from the oil is uncooked. We spoke with an olive oil expert from Athens, Greece, who is the owner of a local products shop where he conducts olive oil tastings for his clients. He recommends using a small amount in the initial cooking process, but adding additional oil just before cooking is finished in order for the health benefits of olive oil to be optimized. In this way, we are not having to give up the habit of cooking with the oil, but neither are we neglecting the health benefits that are available from consumption.
The specialist also gave several important tips on storing olive oil. It should be stored in a small container in order to reduce exposure to oxygen, which takes away from the benefits. He also recommends storage in a dark space, as sunlight is not beneficial to the oils longevity.
Olive oil has many long recognized health benefits, and recently, a study done by Harvard has added to the list. Olive oil consumption has high levels of oleic acids, which help reduce inflammation. The food contains high levels of antioxidants, protecting the body against cell damage, and has been proven to guard against heart problems (through reduced inflammation and protection against oxidation). And, perhaps most compellingly, Harvard studies have concluded olive oil to be an anti-carcinogenic food (more on that here).
With all of these incredible health benefits in mind, dip some bread in some fresh olive oil with balsamic, make a salad with a simple and delicious lemon-olive oil dressing, or bake an olive oil cake! You could also make an olive oil pesto, or add several drops to decorate your favorite soup. The possibilities are endless with this delicious, yet mild tasting, oil. Whichever way you choose to consume it, know that you are benefiting your body in a number of ways.
One final interesting note is that together, olive oil and honey contain all of the nutrients needed for the human body. We know what we’ll be eating this week!
Julia Holm, Director of Sales and Operations