When asked which is better – butter or margarine? The answer always is – olive oil. One thing that can be certain in nutrition science is that the Mediterranean diet has shown undeniable health benefits. This style of eating encourages an increased intake of nuts, fish, whole grains and vegetables while eating less meat and processed foods. At the same time it promotes an increase in the good fats (monounsaturated as well as polyunsaturated) and lesser amounts of the bad fats (saturated fats and trans fat). Despite the reported health benefits of monounsaturated rich olive oil there remains much confusion on how to use it in cooking, how to choose the right type and how to store it properly. Switching from butter or margarine seems pretty straight forward – but as you will see, there is a lot more to know about olive oil than we thought!
The Health Benefits of Olive Oil
When monounsaturated rich olive oil is used in place of saturated fats it can help to lower ‘bad’ or LDL cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil which has the highest levels of antioxidants has the added benefit of protecting cholesterol in the arteries against harmful oxidation. Furthermore, polyphenolic components in extra virgin olive oil have also been shown to reduce high blood pressure. These factors may also help to explain the lower incidences of cancer in the Mediterranean populations.
Extra Virgin, Virgin or Refined Olive Oil, Which One Do I Choose?
Simply put, both extra virgin and virgin olive oils are made using methods that do not in any way alter the oil. No excessive heating or chemical refining can take place. The difference between extra virgin and virgin olive oil is based on their characteristics including acidity, flavour and fragrance.
- Extra virgin olive oil has a lower acidity and a flavour and odor that is said to be ‘excellent’
- Virgin olive oil has a higher acidity and it’s flavour and odor must be ‘reasonably good’
Just plain olive oil (no virgin designation) is a blend of refined oil and virgin olive oil. Refined olive oil has been chemically treated, but still has the good monounsaturated fats.
- Olive oil has an acidity between extra virgin and virgin. It’s flavour and odor is similar to virgin olive oil
- Refined olive oil has no fragrance or flavour, and the antioxidant alpha-tocopherol is generally added back in to replace the naturally occurring antioxidant that is removed during the refining process
Can I Use Olive Oil For Cooking?
Which olive oil you buy should depend on how you choose to use it. Extra virgin oils, which are minimally processed, contain many desirable ‘impurities’ such as minerals and compounds that degrade rapidly when heated, leading to rancid, off flavours. This variety is best left for salad dressings, dipping bread or for dressing fully cooked foods.
Refined olive oils are a more reasonable choice for cooking, especially at higher temperatures, since the refining process removes the compounds most susceptible to burning. The smoke point of refined olive oil is about 410 degrees F, compared with just 325 degrees F for extra virgin. This is the best olive oil to use for frying or stir-frying. Right in between the two is virgin olive oil which is suitable for sautéing or browning.
Am I Storing My Olive Oil Correctly?
Extra virgin olive oil is susceptible to heat, light and oxygen. Exposure to these elements over time degrades the quality. Olive oil generally has a shelf life of about 12 months. When you bring you olive oil home, the worst place to store it is in the cupboard on top of the stove where it is susceptible to heat, or on the counter top where it is susceptible to light. Store it in a cool cupboard to preserve its quality, or in the fridge if it is a large container that you are not likely to use up quickly. Choosing olive oil that is packaged in darker glass or opaque metal containers also helps to protect to oil from light, which also protects against degradation of tocopherols, the naturally occurring antioxidant that protects the oil from rancidity.
Olive Oil and Sustainability
Olive oil is never going to be produced in Canada, and it is the conditions in Italy and Spain that give us the flavours we love. Therefore we must forfeit the food miles, just as we do for coffee and chocolate. In Canada we produce our own canola oil, unfortunately this is now all genetically modified. A new addition to the Canadian oil scene is Camelina Oil (see Vegan Cauliflower and Miso Dip with Camelina Oil).
Take Home Tips For Using Olive Oil
- Olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats that has been shown to be protective against heart disease
- Use extra-virgin olive oil for dressing salads, dipping bread or to dressing fully cooked foods
- Use virgin olive oil for sautéing or browning at medium temperatures
- Use refined olive oil for frying or stir-frying at higher temperatures
- Store your olive oil in a dark cupboard, not on top of the stove or on the counter-top
- Great recipes using olive oil: Roasted Garlic Hummus and Summer Tofu Salad Bowl with a Savoury Dressing
University of Virginia – Journal of Gastroenterology
The Choice Guide to Food – Rosemary Stanton