If you’re like most Americans, you love to slather your food in butter or olive oil. In moderation, these fats can be healthy. Of course, there are those who would say otherwise. For this reason, we’ll break down the merit of consuming olive oil and suggest when to use it.
Olive oil has been a staple in cultures around the world for thousands of years — particularly in the Middle East. Furthermore, it seems to be beloved by carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike. So, what makes the oil so healthy?
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
As Mark Sisson explained in a recent blog post, olive oil has a high MUFA (monounsaturated fats) content. In the health world, MUFAs are universally lauded. This is because they are nearly as resistant to oxidation as saturated fats. They raise HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol. Furthermore, cellular membranes and mitochondria with a lot of monounsaturated fat perform better than ones with more polyunsaturated fat.
Olive oil also has a high polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil, specifically, is rich in polyphenols. The plant nutrients act as antioxidants, thereby protecting it from predators and oxidative stress, health, and light. The polyphenols act as minor toxins in the body, provoking an adaptive hormetic response that makes us stronger, fitter, and healthier.
Depending on who you talk to, they’re either “good” or bad.” But, we like Sisson’s theory that polyphenols can be pretty useful. The reasoning is U-shaped: too little is suboptimal whereas too much — just like with food, exercise, and sun exposure — can produce detrimental effects.
Let’s not forget, either, that olive oil has been enjoyed in classic Mediterranean cuisine for thousands of years. Olive oil has also been used in cosmetics for nearly as long. In fact, the oil of olives was used to cleanse gladiator champions. Even today, the food is used in natural foundations and cleansers.
These are all good arguments, but what does science say?
In this study, overweight women ate one of two breakfasts for a year. The first breakfast was supplemented with soybean oil and the second was supplemented with extra virgin olive oil. Both breakfasts were identical except for the fat source. At the end of the year, the women who at the EVOO breakfast had higher HDL cholesterol, lower inflammatory markers, better blood pressure, and lower body weight.
For this trial, Type 2 diabetics with bad blood lipids were assigned to take either a statin or EVOO. The statin was slightly better at reducing LDL and increasing HDL, but not by a lot. Furthermore, "the EVOO didn’t impair any physiological pathways or cause any undesired second order effects."
Based on this study, extra virgin olive oil, but not corn oil, reduces postprandial oxidative stress.
This study found that women who ate high-polyphenol EVOO every day for 8 weeks enjoyed reduced oxidative damage to their DNA.
Ways to Enjoy Olive Oil
Aside from sautéing your onions and garlic in olive oil, you can enjoy extra virgin olive oil (least refined version) in the following ways:
Isn’t Olive Oil Sensitive to Heat?
Not exactly.. As Sisson pointed out, extra virgin olive oil is resistant to low and medium heat.
“Despite being heated at 180 ºC (356 ºF) for 36 hours, two varieties of extra virgin olive oil exhibited strong resistance to oxidative damage and retained most of their “minor [phenolic] compounds.” Another study added olive phenols to vegetable oil, then heated it. Adding the olive phenols made the vegetable oil more resistant to oxidation and preserved the vitamin E content, offering more protection than even a synthetic antioxidant designed to do the job.
Essentially, nothing really bad happens when you cook with olive oil. In addition, uniquely good things happen when you use it in the kitchen.
Studies have found that cooking Sofrito, or the Spanish staple of sautéed onions, garlic, peppers, and tomato in olive oil, protects and enhances the polyphenols found in the various vegetables. Furthermore, it increases the bioavailability of the polyphenols. The same thing happens when you cook tomatoes — the lycopene is enhanced after cooking with olive oil.
So, is it healthy or not?
In summary, olive oil is great for eating cold and dressing salads. This method of consumption brings out the flavors and preserves the polyphenols. But, olive oil is also good for many cooking methods, too. It is resistant to heat damage in low and medium heat applications — like slow roasting, baking, and light sautéing. This is due to the stability of the fatty acids and antioxidant capacity fo the polyphenols. We now know that olive oil preserves and even enhances nutrient content of vegetables own used to cook.
The staple has been around for thousands of years and likely will be around for thousands more. If you love Mediterranean food, feel good knowing that reasonable amounts of cold-pressed olive oil are good for your health and heart.