Olive Oil: Its Health Benefits and How Much to Consume

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Olive oil was Athena's gift to the ancient Greeks, but it's only more recently that the full value of this precious gift has been understood. It turns out that extra-virgin olive oil, that obtained by cold-pressing the olives and separating the oil from the paste via press or centrifuge, is quite good for your health.

First, olive oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also found in wild (as opposed to farm-raised) oily fish such as salmon, and which are important in preventing cardiovascular disease.

Olive oil is also a good source of omega-6 fatty acids, which the body transforms into prostaglandins, substances that can block inflammation and help regulate heart, liver and kidney function. Recent research has shown that in order to derive the maximum benefit from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, you need to ingest them in the proper ratio, which is one part omega-3 to 10 parts omega-6. Coincidentally, that is the ratio in which they are present in olive oil. By comparison, many other elements in the Western diet offer ratios between twenty and fifty to one.

Olive oil is also a powerful anti-inflammatory; according to an article published in the September 1, 2005 issue of Nature (see the Editor's Summary), the oleocanthal olive oil contains is an anti-inflammatory compound "with a potency and profile very like that of ibuprofen." 

It could even do more; Giuseppe Caramia, an Italian clinician, notes that anti-inflammatory drugs as a whole have been shown to fight cancer, and in light of oleocanthal's similarity to ibuprofen, he says it is reasonable to suppose that olive oil falls into this class of substances.



Finally, olive oil may contribute to well-being in old age: Antonio Capurso, Professor of Gerontology at the University of Bari, has stated that olive oil reduces LDL cholesterol -- the kind that clogs the arteries -- and raises HDL cholesterol, which is instead beneficial (the American Heart Association has a more detailed discussion of this), and that olive oil is a powerful antioxidant, which, in particular, appears to inhibit colorectal cancer.



I had heard about olive oil's effects on cholesterol and cancer before, but he also said that an ongoing study he and his staff are carrying out shows that olive oil helps preserve cognitive functions in the elderly (See the abstract of the article published in Neurology): They studied a group of people aged 65-85 over a period of 10 years, and found that those who consumed 1/3 cup of olive oil per day tended to live longer and better than those who did not, while those who consumed 1/2 cup per day were significantly less likely to develop dementia.

In short, the US FDA's statement, "Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day," is perhaps cautious. If you are in good health, 2 tablespoons per day will certainly do you good, in many ways.

And this brings us to what you should look for. Though the FDA says virgin olive oil, what you really want is extra-virgin olive oil, which is higher quality and has higher concentrations of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.

 

The important thing is that you check the label to make certain the oil is estate-pressed and -bottled -- there is, alas, considerable fraud in the olive oil industry. It should be green, though not too brilliant a green, and don't be put off by cloudiness, which just means that it's unfiltered. Be wary, on the other hand, of oil in cans that you cannot see, and also of very pale oils, or yellow oils: Pale oils have certainly been filtered and may have been cut with other less healthy oils, whereas deep yellow oils might be old/rancid.

Read this article for more on the rampant fraud in the extra-virgin olive oil industry, how to select and store oils, and how to use them.

How to consume your two tablespoons daily?

The most obvious answer is on a salad, or a slice of crusty bread.

But here are some other options:

  • Bruschetta
  • Over boiled cannellini or cranberry beans -- add some tuna and serve cool in the summer, and you'll be happy indeed.
  • In a nutritious .
  • Drizzled over soups, especially minestrone, pasta e fagioli, or ribollita.
  • During the summer, over pappa al pomodoro.
  • To season pinzimonio, a platter of mixed raw vegetables.

More about selecting olive oil, storing it, and its uses

[Edited on June 26, 2016 by Danette St. Onge]