The healthiness of the traditional Greek diet is partly due to the large consumption of high quality extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has beneficial effects on virtually every part of the body, thanks to its unique composition.
Olive Oil consists of 98-99% fat in the form of fatty acids, and a 1-2% non-fat ('water') component which contains plant chemicals or 'phytonutrients' - the most important of which are polyphenols. The health benefits of olive oil result from those two main elements plus a third factor - the way olive oil is used in the diet.
The healthiest way to use olive oil is as part of a mixed Cretan style diet, where various synergistic effects take place.
But how much olive oil is good for you? In Greece, as much as 30 litres per person per year are consumed - mainly as part of a mixed vegetable-rich diet. But a cup of olive oil (often with a thimble of Raki!) is frequently taken as a nutritious breakfast before going out to the fields, particularly in the winter. And recent studies have confirmed that, even on its own, olive oil is beneficial for health, particularly when used to replace saturated or processed fats. Thus:
1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day helps prevent:
* inflammatory conditions
Olive oil and olive leaf polyphenols also have:
Polyphenols may also help prevent and heal sunburn
Regular intake of extra virgin olive oil also helps
Let's take a look at the fat and water components of olive oil to find out why they are healthy
OLIVE OIL'S HEALTHY FAT COMPOSITION
OLIVE OIL’S HEALTHY ‘WATER’ FRACTION - THE 1-2% NON-FATTY PART
The water content of olive oil is what makes it different from most other cooking oils – because olive oil is a fruit oil, it contains a juice which is rich in plant nutrients and vitamins. One of these is a group of natural plant nutrients called polyphenols - a new health buzz word - and extra virgin olive oil is literally packed with them.
Natural polyphenols are a group of plant nutrients which are part of the plant's own protection system against bacteria, fungi and viruses. They also serve as a natural preservative of oil once it is bottled. The polyphenols are stable throughout the range of normal domestic cooking, and help to protect the oil's alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) - so cooked olive oil does not lose any of its goodness.
The polyphenols have important benefits for humans too: first, they contribute to the flavour of olive oil - giving it pungency, pepperiness and bitterness (especially oleuropin); and they have important health benefits thanks to their potent anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activity - as explained below.
OLIVE OIL POLYPHENOLS!
A bitter, pungent and peppery oil is high in polyphenols and therefore high in antioxidants - and therefore very good for you!
Olive oil contains more than 30 different polyphenols, but the most important are Oleuropin, Hydroxytyrosol and Tyrosol - and account for olive oil's bitter taste. Oleuropein is present in all parts of the olive tree (and explains its incredible resistance to disease), with especially high concentrations in the leaves.
The health effect of polyphenols in olive oil is such that the EU regulations now allow the following health claim to be placed on labels which contain a minimum level of these 3 polyphenols:
"Olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress with a daily intake of 20g olive oil or more"
(EU) Regulation No 432/2012 of 16 May 2012
OLIVE OIL'S VITAMINS
Some of the health benefits of olive oil are due to its vitamins and other antioxidants - vitamin E, carotein, chlorophyll and zinc. These fat soluble vitamins are not broken down by cooking. Olive oil Squalene also contributes to the low incidence of cancer seen in Mediterranean countries.
Vitamin E: Olives have 1.6mg, or 2.3 IU per tablespoon. One tablespoon provides 8% of RDA for vitamin E.
Vitamin K: The richest sources of vitamin K are green, leafy vegetables. The greener the vegetable, the higher the content, because the vitamin is associated with the chlorophyll. According to the USDA, olive oil is the second best source.
Features which correlate with the healthiness of an olive oil:
• Low acidity (ideally <0.4%)
• Type of olive – Very High Polyphenol Content are found in: Koroneiki, Coratina, Conicabra, Moraiolo, Picual; (Low content in Arbequina, Picudo, Taggiasca).
• A good blend of green (less ripe) and black (ripe) olives in the mix
• Olive Leaves: Some producers do not remove all the olive leaves from the pressing mix, which makes it very high in antioxidants, but can make the olive oil rather bitter
• Taste: an olive oil which is bitter and peppery has plenty of antioxidants!
• Freshness – ideally you want an olive oil that is from the latest harvest
* Organic olive oil is probably healthier
Click here for our blog on Essential Olive Oil Facts
More people are getting to know about and enjoy olive oil. But there is still a lot of uncertainty. Questions I am often asked are: What to look for when buying olive oil? How to use it? Can you cook with it? Why it is better for you than some other oils?
In the next couple of blog entries I thought I would try to answer some of these questions, share some Olive Oil facts and end up with a buying guide….
Olive oil is actually a fresh fruit juice - the fruit being the olive picked from the trees. Although the picking can be done mechanically, in Greece I have never seen this. The mountainous terrain makes it impossible for harvesting in any other way than by hand, which is good for the olive oil! Once picked, the olives are sorted and sifted, removing the bulk of the leaves, and then taken in sacks or crates to the olive mill, where further sifting takes place. The olives are then washed in cold water, and ideally pressed within 24 hours or less of harvesting.
The oil/juice is 'squeezed' from the olive by a mechanical press, under cold conditions. Hence the terms ‘cold pressing’ and ‘cold extraction’.This represents a major difference between olive oil and most other cooking oils – such as rapeseed, sunflower seed, safflower seed, coconut (the nut is the seed), and corn oil: the latter are all seed oils, not fruit oils, and cannot be extracted by mechanical means. In fact the only seed oil that can be extracted by cold mechanical pressing is sesame seed.
This difference is important for several reasons:
First, the fruit juice of the olive contains not only fat, but a water fraction which contains a number of phytochemicals which are extremely good for you. This water element (and its contained goodness) is missing from seed oils.
Second, the fact that the olive juice/oil is obtained without any heat or chemicals means that the both the fat- component and the water fraction element are not destroyed by the extraction process. In other words, the goodness is retained through the extraction process.
Most seeds however, unlike olives (or avocado – another fruit oil) don’t contain enough oil to be mechanically pressed. The extraction of their oil needs more drastic methods. There are two which are commonly used: The first is by expeller pressing, where the seeds must first be cooked to high temperatures, then crushed and finally expeller pressed; or worse still, by using a chemical solvent (yes, such as light petroleum!) to extract the oil – so called ‘dissolved oils’. So even if this is done under cold temperature, it is not the same as cold pressing! The first removes most of the goodness, and the second is positively bad for our health, as it is impossible to remove all the solvent from the oil. It is estimated that 98% of US soya oil is solvent extracted.
This image is taken from a research paper describing how the protein in rapeseed is degraded during the oil extraction process. Incidentally, when you are told that rapeseed oil is also'cold pressed' the only cold pressing that it has is during the cake formation phase! The oil is still extracted with solvent.
So even when a seed oil contains ‘good fats’ (about which more in another blog), they are missing all the extra goodness contained in the water fraction of a fruit oil – such as olive oil (or avocado oil – also a fruit oil which shares many benefits with olive oil). And second, the process of extracting the oil may actually leave harmful residues in the oil. So, all of the common vegetable cooking oils – sunflower seed, rape seed (canola seed), coconut oil (which should be avoided at all costs due to its very high saturated fat content), safflower seed oil – are seed oils which have had to be either heated or solvent treated to extract the oil. Furthermore, many seed oils are then refined, to remove any ‘impurities’ (which often includes a lot of the goodness!). All in all: NOT GOOD!
Avocado oil and sesame seed oil are the only other cooking oils which can be mechanically cold pressed and so retain their original health value.
Depending on the quality of the fruit and how the oil is extracted, there are several 'grades' of olive oil. The EU has classified different types according to how the oil is made and processed, its taste, aroma and texture (these are known as ‘organoleptic factors’) as well as certain laboratory measures such as acidity.
1. VIRGIN OLIVE OIL is produced by mechanical pressing at low temperatures which minimise deterioration in the oil. The olives are not exposed to any other process other than cleaning, centrifugation and filtration. Virgin olive oil is then subdivided into the following categories:
a. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO):
This is the first pressed pure 'juice' - and is more healthy, tastes better and lasts longer than other kinds of olive oil. In order to qualify as extra virgin olive, it must fulfil certain very strict laboratory and organoleptic criteria:
i. the acidity - i.e. free fatty acids (expressed as oleic acid) - must be <1g/100g (i.e. <1%); (But the best EVOOS have acidity of less than 0.5%)
ii. peroxide <20 and waxes of <250mg/100mg.
iii. on organoleptic testing there must be no defects (eg. it must not taste rancid or fusty) and it must have key positive qualities such as aroma, fruity taste, bitterness and pepper.
The less good virgin olive oils are bascically ranked according to their acidity and organoleptic features as follows:
b. Virgin olive oil – has an acidity of 1-2% and must have <2.5 organoleptic defects
c. Curante virgin olive oil acidity 2-3.3% (curante = medicinal, i.e. for external use, not for eating)
d. Lampante virgin olive oil has an acidity of >3.3 and organoleptic defects of >6. (lampante – used for lamps!)
2. REFINED OLIVE OIL sounds special but in fact it is a low level oil, produced from poor quality virgin olive oil in refineries; its method of processing means it has had much of the goodness taken out of it. However, its acidity is nevertheless <0.5% - and this is often a misleading factor if you only look at acidity values!
3. 'OLIVE OIL' is a product made from mixing refined olive oil with virgin olive oil and has an acidity of <1.5%. In his book "Olives - the life and lore of a noble fruit",p 123) Mort Rosenblum describes how one Turkish refinery technician explained to him how
'the worst sort of inedible olive oil (is converted) into "pure olive oil" - using activated earth filters, scalding steam and chemicals to remove nasty odors and murky colours. Caustic soda can cut the acidity from 5 or 6 percent to below 1%. ...the same level as extra-virgin oil...except that there is no taste, no colour, no body, nothing. A splash of better oil makes it saleable if not desirable". SO BEWARE!
4. POMACE OILS:
a. Crude pomace oil is extracted with an organic solvent and not fit for human consumption; neither is refined pomace oil.
b. Pomace olive oil is a mixture of refined oil from the OLIVE STONE (i.e. comparable to a seed oil) and virgin olive oil (except lampante) and is fit for human consumption - but not advisable!
All of the following are sold in retail food shops: extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil and pomace olive oil.
But the only type I would advise anyone to buy for consuming raw or in cooking, is extra virgin.
Avoid anything that says ‘light’ ‘pure’ or ‘refined’!
Coming next.......Why is olive oil good for us?
Have you ever wondered where the term "Liquid Gold" came from?
The answer is - Homer!
In the Odyssey, when Odysseus emerged from the shipwreck, he was bathed by some beautiful damsels (who happened to be in the vicinity), in olive oil
- and his handsome body appeared to glisten with 'Liquid Gold' (translation of the relevant passage coming soon)
We may not have Odysseus here, but we DO have the most delicious Liquid Gold in the world:
it's Greek, its Golden, it's Good for you - and it's JUST ARRIVED - the brand new 2018 harvest.
Our Cretan Liquid Gold Organic comes from south of Iraklion, and is rated by Charles Quest Ritson - olive oil expert and author of bestselling Dorling Kindersley book 'Olive Oil' - as one of the most delicious oils he has tasted - giving it an amazin 9/10 (and he is a tough judge!). It is also Nigella Lawson's favourite luxury olive oil, and one of her 5 kitchen essentials! We only get limited amounts each year, so be sure to order some or pop into the cave to buy some.
From the same Cretan producers we have the Olyssos - our super-healthy olive oil: this is very low acidity and very high in polyphenols - so if you are after health effects, whilst all of our olive oils are good for you, this one is the one to go for.
Then for those who like a bit more punch, go for our delicious green-gold Liquid Gold - from Vordonia, in the Peloponnese. Vordonia Gold is a very rare olive oil made from the Athenolia olive - one of the oldest olive varieties in Greece. It is made in the traditional way with hydrolic pressing of the olives, and is unfiltered. The entire process is of course done with cold pressing and extraction.
Finally, for a fantastically versatile everyday oil, perfect for cooking as well as salads, I suggest our Sparta Gold.
This is a great value oil, on special offer at the moment, produced in the eurates valley, just north of Stavia's grandfather's home in Mani!
It is quite mild, but also very low acidity.
There was heavy snowfall on the tow path by the River Thames this afternoon ... beautiful but cold ....
... but it was oh so warm and cozy in the Liquid Gold Cave!
And though there was only the occasional passer by (or mad jogger) during this blizzard, they were delighted to stumble across us - serving hot chocolate and Greek kourabiedes, immersed in a backdrop of Greek music (Basilis Papakonstantidou and Yannis Kotsiras playing). One lady from South Africa even sat at the table outside drinking a Greek coffee (with a splash of Raki!) - because she enjoyed the novelty of seeing snow freshly falling! Cretan farmers routinely drink a thimbleful of Raki in the winter mornings, perhaps with a piece of bread and olive oil, before hiking to the fields to start collecting the olives. A little bit of Raki warms them and gives them energy.
Well there may not be any Cretan farmers by the river in Richmond today, but there are plenty of noisy ducks and geese - sounds like they are enjoying the snow!