The Hidden Benefits of Greek Olive Oil
By CHELSEA FUCHS
We all know modern life has a lot of moving parts, so it's great to find things that can solve a lot of problems all at once. Extra-virgin Greek olive oil is one of those things: It’s one of the most versatile foods on the planet.
It's the building block of one of the world's most healthy (and delicious) diets and, unlike other oils, isn't just for frying pans. In study after study, modern science confirms what the ancient Greeks knew all along: Using Greek olive oil is one of the single healthiest food choices a person can make, so learn how to look for the right olive oil, what it does and the health benefits it provides.
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Not all fats were created equal, and olive oil is among the healthiest known oils. It's a central part of the so-called "Greek paradox" (i.e., people who follow a Mediterranean diet that's high in fats have low levels of cardiovascular disease and obesity).
You've probably heard about the health benefits of fish oil. Extra-virgin olive oil contains the same omega-3 fatty acids associated with everything from lowering blood fat (a primary risk for heart disease) to decreasing joint pain in people with arthritis. You can even triple your intake of omega-3s by cooking fish in extra-virgin olive oil.
It's no secret that obesity is a growing issue in America, particularly among children. Consuming Greek olive oil regularly has been shown to help maintain body weight and improve blood sugar and insulin control; the same goes for watching cholesterol. Olive oil is loaded with high-density lipids, or HDL, the "good" kind of cholesterol. Finally, of all available vegetable oils, olive oil is highest in monounsaturated fat, the kind of fat that doesn't oxidize in the body and cause the body to age.
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Extra-virgin olive oil contains a natural chemical with special properties: the phytonutrient oleocanthal. Oleocanthal mimics the effects of ibuprofen, reducing inflammation. Doctors believe inflammation is associated with -- and may even be the root cause of -- everything from allergies and depression to heart disease and cancer. The oleocanthal in extra-virgin olive oil keeps inflammation from getting out of hand.
Extra-virgin Greek olive oil is not only the purest variety of olive oil available, but has the richest flavor and aroma. Consider using olive oil as a replacement for butter and vegetable oils while cooking recipes you are already familiar with. You won't lose flavor, but you will gain a wealth of healthy benefits.
Not Just for the Frying Pan
Pair it with some pita bread or a baguette for a classic snack. It's also one of the most popular dressings for all sorts of salads, Greek and otherwise.
And then there's pasta. Contrary to popular belief, Italian chefs recommend pouring some olive oil on your ziti and penne after you boil it. This way, your noodles will retain the full-bodied flavor of the oil.
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Extra Virgin vs. Virgin
We know that extra-virgin olive oil has some specific health benefits as well as a distinctive taste. But what does extra-virgin mean? Extra-virgin oil comes from the first pressing of the olives. They are always cold pressed, meaning no heat or chemicals are used to extract the final product. There are no additives or preservatives either.
The result? An unadulterated oil that retains its natural flavor or aroma. Virgin olive oil comes from the second pressing and is of a lower quality. Greece has a special relationship with olive oil, where over 80 percent of production is extra virgin. For comparison, only 50 percent of Italian and less than 30 percent of Spanish olive oil are extra-virgin.
Labels Can Lie
Unfortunately, many brands claiming extra-virgin status are actually less than pure. Sometimes they are even adulterated with lesser varieties of vegetable oil.
In the U.S., food journalists' estimate 69 percent of the olive oil on shelves is impure. There are easy ways to make sure you're getting the purest product possible -- just think about where it comes from. If 80 percent of the olive oil produced in Greece is of extra-virgin quality, the odds are good you're getting the best product available. Do a bit of research on the brands you see on supermarket shelves before you buy.
Readers -- Do you use olive oil in your kitchen? Which kind of olive oil do you prefer using? Do you notice a difference between extra-virgin and virgin olive oil? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Chelsea Fuchs, M.S., RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian with a master's of science degree in nutrition from Columbia University. She currently works in the public relations industry, providing strategic nutrition communications counsel to food and nutrition clients. Prior to her work in public relations, Chelsea served as the associate editor for Joy Bauer, nutrition and health expert for NBC's Today Show.
Connect with Chelsea on LinkedIn.