For thousands of years and across myriad cultures and mythologies, the olive tree has been synonymous with “peace” and “prosperity.” And thus, so are the fruits and oils from this tree.
I think of olive oil as one of our most potent pain relieving and anti-inflammatory agents.
In fact, freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil contains a compound that has the same pharmacological impact as ibuprofen. That’s right! One tablespoon of olive oil may be a better curative for those spasms and tenderness that typically leave you reaching for the plastic white bottle of NSAIDs.
This same molecule, called oleocanthal, is what’s said to be at the heart of the superior health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
And while olive oil has been used for medicine and beauty for millennia, like all foods, there are some guidelines for keeping your good efforts in check and ensuring that you’re inviting the most potent health benefits.
In other words, the wrong choices could turn your good intentions into ignorant impairment.
The Hebrew word for “olive tree” is es shemen. This translates to mean “tree of oil.” The root meaning is “to shine.” It connotes “richness, fruitful, ointment.” It’s related to the word shemesh, “to be brilliant.”
To shine your brightest light, follow these 3 key rules as a guide for choosing and using olive oil:
Fresh is Best.
While it’s true that certain foods and beverages improve with time and age, olive oil is not among them. Olive oil is, in fact, perishable.
Did you know that olive oil can be made from over 700 different kinds of olives?
Look for an olive oil that has not been sitting for a long time in storage. Again, think fresh! (Remember, olive oil is coming from a fruit.)
To ensure that your olive oil is fresh, select oils that have been stored in a cool, dark place with a fast turnover.
In the store, choose oils bottled in dark glass or containers that are otherwise protected from the sun. I always like to look at where in the store, in relation to the windows, the oil is shelved.
Check the “best by” date, or even better, if you’re buying from a smaller-batch supplier, look for the harvest date!
Even at home, the smaller the bottle the better. The more time it has sitting exposed to air (even within the bottle itself), the more of a chance it has to go rancid and spoil. Rancidity, in a nutshell, means not so healthy after all.
Go find your cool dark place to store your olive oil now!
Quality is key.
Choosing olive oil is another one of those cases where reading labels matters. The health advantages of oil can be delivered within every bite or processed out before the bottle has even made it into your grocery cart.
Does labeling matter?
The label “virgin” implies that the oil was made through a physical process. Back in the time of the Romans, this used to be by pressing olives with rocks. Nowadays it means just pressing, mechanically, not using any chemical processing to alter and extract the oil and its constituents.
“Extra virgin” is a term implying that it’s the best, the first pressing, with the most extraordinary health benefits.
The oil with superior benefits is going to come from the freshest picked fruit that is mechanically and cold pressed (not using heat above 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Pressing should happen fairly quickly after picking, with the oil stored as noted above.
The difference, and the place where things can get tricky and not so favorable, is when the oil is chemically processed, mixed and blended with lower grade seed or soy oils or deodorized due to the use of overripe, not fresh picked, fruit; fruit that’s been harvested or swept right from the ground.
Tom Meuller, in his book “Extra Virginity” calls this a “defrauding of the health benefits”.
When it comes to olive oil, “extra virgin” is the highest quality with “virgin” following close behind. “Lampante” is the lowest quality (meaning lamp oil, which was another traditional use of olive oil not meant for consumption). Anything that is “light” falls into the category of “lampante”. Use it for your oil lamps, not for your food.
Put it to good use!
Another place where the defrauding of the health benefits of olive oil can happen is right on your stove top. That’s right! You can be spending a pretty penny on your olive oil and impairing its value without even knowing it.
From a culinary perspective, using good-quality olive oil at a high heat is a waste of money and flavor. From a health perspective it’s downright menacing.
Olive oil has a relatively moderate heat point. It’s not meant to be used at high temperatures. In cooking this is referred to as the oil’s smoke point. The smoke point is literally when the oil begins to produce a pungent smoke.
When an oil reaches its smoke point it becomes rancid and oxidized, simply meaning that it invites oxidative stress and free radical damage at any site of internal inflammation.
Your body naturally produces free radicals as a part of normal metabolism. In an ideal world they’re neutralized by the antioxidants like we get from our fruits, vegetables and unheated olive oil!
Unfortunately we often have more free radical activity than we do antioxidants to keep things in check. This leads to the oxidation and inflammation that becomes the breeding ground for many of our chronic diseases.
I like to use my olive oil unheated or mildly heated. Often times I’ll stir fry veggies in a broth or in an oil conducive to higher heat and then add my olive oil at the end, for flavor.
And flavorful it is!
All those different olives yield myriad flavor profiles and consistencies – from cloudy to clear. In this regard, one is not better than the other. Follow your taste buds. They know a good thing.
WHAT TO BUY
Let’s turn to the expert.
Here I’ll share some of Tom Mueller’s recommendations. Afterall, he’s a master on the subject, has done extensive research in Italy, Spain and here in the states, tasting the richness of oils from continent to continent.
Of course, like him, I’m one of those people who loves a really good olive oil from a small batch press. I could sample olive oils like some people sample wine. (I just need a good head of steamed broccolini for dipping instead of the bread.)
But we don’t all have the time or local resources to do that kind of sampling.
So where does that leave us at the store? Check this out. There are still some good options.
And here’s Mueller’s easy-to-find supermarket picks.
Olive oil contains a cocktail of hundreds of beneficial and anti-inflammatory agents. Today’s action step is simple…consume it!
(Truth be told, I even have some clients eat it right off the spoon!)
Your comments and feedback are always welcome. Is there an ingredient you'd like to learn more about? Is there a nutrition class you always wish existed? Let me know!