You feel good about using olive oil, right? You know it’s good for you, tasty and easy to use. Still, to get the most benefits — and the best bang for your buck — there’s more you should know.
“The health benefits of olive oil are 99 percent related to the presence of the phenolic compounds, not the oil itself,” says Nasir Malik, research plant physiologist at the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service.
Malik is referring to the polyphenols in olive oil, nutrients also found in wine, tea, cocoa and many fruits and vegetables that have been discovered over the past decade to be the substances responsible for the bulk of olive oil’s health benefits, without which “you might as well use canola oil,” Malik says.
And when tested, polyphenols were surprisingly low in most commercially available olive oils, according to a recently published study conducted by the Agricultural Research Service, co-authored by Malik.
They also don’t live up to international or U.S. Agriculture Department quality standards, according to studies conducted by the University of California at Davis Olive Center.
The good stuff
Polyphenols decrease heart disease risk factors by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing blood clotting and improving the health of artery linings.
Researchers have discovered genes that, when activated, either increase or reduce your chances for metabolic syndrome, the name for a group of risk factors that together increase the risk for heart disease, America’s No. 1 killer. Fresh, high-polyphenol olive oil affects these genes in a positive way, reducing your risk for heart disease. But low-polyphenol olive oil does not have the same effects, according to a recent study.
Polyphenols also reduce cancer risk by lowering inflammation and cellular proliferation. They act as antioxidants, reducing oxidation and cell damage, which leads to many degenerative diseases. They even reduce microbial activity and infections.
These benefits explain, in part, why the Mediterranean diet, high in olive oil, has been linked with superior health. But there is an advantage even the poorest of the poor in Mediterranean countries have enjoyed since at least 4,000 B.C.: freshly harvested olive oil. That’s because olives were growing on trees in their own back yards; it was plentiful and cheap. But its freshness had been taken for granted.
Studies show that as days, weeks and months go by after harvest, the polyphenol content and health benefits of the oil diminish.
“Think of olive oil as olive juice with a maximum two-year shelf life,” says Selina Wang, research director at the U.C.-Davis Olive Center.
Several factors are responsible for the polyphenol content of olive oil, according to the experts:
• Harvesting method: Rougher treatment and exposure to the elements reduces phenols.
• The age of the trees: Older trees contain significantly more.
• Olive maturation: Green olives contain more polyphenols than ripe olives, though it’s easier to extract more oil from riper olives.
• Processing: The less processing the better. “Extra virgin” olive oil, which is cold-pressed only once, has the highest polyphenol levels. Two presses (“virgin” olive oil), reduces polyphenol content further, and oil with three extractions contains only about half the value of “virgin” olive oil. Highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.
• Storage: Any exposure of the harvested olives or the oil to heat, light or air will reduce polyphenol content. (If you’re using extreme heat in cooking, you’ll most likely lose the polyphenols anyway, so you might as well use canola oil, which contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.)
Marcia Horting and her husband, Marc Marzullo, who visit Italy regularly, are on a constant quest for great olive oil. “We look for oils produced by single vineyards, co-ops in small towns like Volpaia, or high-quality Tuscan producers that are grassy and spicy,” says Horting, a consultant in Gaithersburg, Md. She has noticed that in the bigger stores in Paris and Rome serving tourists, “older olive oils are sold at the same prices as the more recent harvest.”
Luckily, you no longer have to go to Italy for high-quality extra virgin olive oil, as they are now being produced in the United States. They’re more likely to be fresh — and with a price you can afford. California is the leader of the olive oil-producing states, but Texas, Oregon, Arizona and Georgia are producing a small amount.
It’s tricky knowing the olive oil you’re buying is high-quality, fresh extra virgin olive oil. In most U.S. stores, I have found olive oil with harvest dates on perhaps one out of 20 bottles. Some have “sell-by” dates, which are usually two years after harvest, though there are no standards for a sell-by date, so there is no guarantee how old your olive oil is unless there is a harvest date. Look for a harvest date within the past year.
Even if it has a harvest date, you still won’t know whether it has been harvested and handled to maximize polyphenol content.
The way I handle this is by going to a specialty Italian shop or somewhere that I know sells California or Texas olive oil, making sure the container is opaque and has a harvest date, keeping it in a cool, dark cabinet at home, and using it up quickly. I save expensive olive oil for drizzling on salads and use canola oil for cooking, especially with high heat.
The more consumers demand harvest dates and proper handling, the more these products will become available.
Katherine Tallmadge is a registered dietitian and author of “Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.”