Nutrition: olive oil

Tuesday 08 May 2018

After recently writing about the Mediterranean diet I want to look at olive oil: its health benefits, the research surrounding this, what to look for when buying it, and a few idea of how to use it.

Olive oil has been around for centuries but research into it has gathered pace and it is enthusiastically used by many health promoting practitioners. Of course, all the chefs on TV seem to drizzle it over everything and whether that is to do with health or just culinary style I am not sure. Anyway I want to look at olive oil in relation to cancer and general health, which can suffer as a result of the cancer and the treatment involved. Remember that olive oil is a food used liberally in the Mediterranean way of eating and that people who live in the Mediterranean areas are observed to get far less cancer and heart disease than we do in the West.

So why is olive oil so good for us?
When researching this topic I found some interesting sites making quite sweeping claims. One site listed 150 reasons why olive oil is healthy, ranging from reducing cholesterol to preventing saggy skin!!! But I thought that that was a bit over the top. Another described it as liquid gold!!! So why the enthusiasm?

  • Olive oil contains a high percentage of polyphenols, including oleic acid. Polyphenols act as anti-oxidants in the body, protecting cells from damage by free radicals. Free radicals interfere with the balance of the cell and the function of the DNA. According to the book Zest for Life by Conner middleman-whitney, olive oil is thought to protect the body’s cells from cancer causing agents. Anti oxidants have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. This was reported by research carried out by the University of Leicester, among others.
  • One article that I read in ‘Annals of Oncology’, reported that oleic acid significantly cuts the levels of breast cancer promoting genes by up to 46%. Note that when I read these claims I always want to look more deeply to see if there are other denominators that may also play a part and affect the results but this particular research was quite straight forward with clear results.
  • Olive oil is naturally rich in Vitamin E, which again is a powerful anti-oxidant.
  • Using olive oil helps to reduce LDL cholesterol in our bodies, which is the bad cholesterol that can promote heart and circulatory problems.
  • A high intake of olive oil appears to support bone health and helps to guard against osteoporosis (weakening of the bones). Treatments for hormone related cancers can create problems with bone health.
  • Lots of the research articles, including one in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, mentioned the fact that olive oil helps to protect against the development of a bacteria called Helicobacter Pylori, which grows in the stomach when the stomach acid becomes too weak. Weak or reduced levels of stomach acid can quite often develop as a result of chemotherapy.
  • Research published from the University of Leicester reported that olive oil contains a compound called oleocanthal which seemed particularly important in reducing inflammation.

When buying olive oil
You will notice that prices can range enormously from very expensive to moderately expensive. Note that I have not said cheap. Anything that is remotely good for us is more expensive.

The best olive oil that you can buy is 'cold pressed extra virgin olive oil’. This means that it is the first press of the olives. This oil will be at its peak nutritionally and for flavour. 'Cold pressed' simply means that no heat has been applied when manufacturing it.

After the first press, the quality and flavour of the olive oil changes by degrees. Moving from extra virgin olive oil you can buy virgin olive oil and then onto simply pure olive oil. The more the olives are pressed the less nutritional value and flavour and the less expensive the oil.

It is best to try and buy oil in dark coloured glass bottles in small quantities to ensure freshness.

When storing olive oil at home, keep it in a cool dark place like the fridge, as the oil is very susceptible to going rancid and spoiling. 

It is an ideal oil for cooking because it is made up primarily of monounsaturated fatty acids. This basically means that when it is heated there is minimum damage to the structure of the fat. This makes it a good choice to use for stir fries and oven roasted vegetables. Using it cold for salad dressings or drizzling it over cooked vegetables or rice is the best way to gain its full potential of health benefits.

Some ideas

  • Olive oil makes an excellent base for a marinade for fish, chicken or tofu.
  • As a dipping sauce, season the olive oil and infuse with some freshly crushed garlic or finely diced chilli or ginger.
  • For salad dressing take 3 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp of balsamic vinegar and 3 tbsp of whole grain mustard. Mix well for a delicious salad dressing. It will keep in the fridge for several weeks.
  • For another simple salad dressing that suits stronger vegetables like chicory and roasted beetroot, take a small tub of pomegranate seeds, the juice of 1 freshly squeezed orange, 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar and 4 tbsp of olive oil and seasoning. Simply mix them well together.
  • Sprinkle olive oil over fresh bread and rub over a clove of garlic to serve with soups and dips.
  • Make an olive oil dip by processing some olive oil and crushed garlic with a can of any beans that have been drained and rinsed. This is good on baked potatoes, with vegetable sticks, or as a topping for oatcakes or toasted wholemeal bread.
  • Eat whole olives as a snack.
  • Olive oil of course is one of the main ingredients for hummus.

Recipe for basic hummus

  • 300g of chickpeas (save 2 tbsps of water from the chickpea can to soften the hummus if necessary)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 tbsp of lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp of tahini (sesame seed paste).
  • 2-3 tbsp of olive oil
  • ½ tsp salt.

Blend all ingredients together in a processor. You can of course add flavour with any herbs and spices. A very simple example is to whiz in some fresh coriander leaves or basil leaves.

The ideas for using olive oil are endless and you may have plenty of your own.

Blog originally written by Caroline June 2014 – checked April 2020

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