Olive oil has found a place in urban Indian kitchens and its availability in supermarkets and neighbourhood kirana stores clearly indicates its growing demand. There, however, still seems to be some myths around the types of the oil and its usage.
Almost sacred in the Mediterranean region — in countries like France, Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal — olive oil is not native to India but needs no introduction here. Used as a baby massage oil until a few years ago, it has slowly acquired the mighty reputation of being heart-healthy.
Several studies confirm that consumption of olive oil, rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), has contributed to low rates of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and increased life expectancy in the Mediterranean belt. One of the largest — the Seven Country Study (1958-1964) — showed that Greece, with the highest consumption of olive oil, reported the lowest number of deaths from heart disease. It is in fact thanks to olive oil that the distinction between good and bad fats began to be recognised.
The French and Spanish paradoxes symbolised the importance of the quality of fats rather than simply the quantity.
Low incidence of heart disease in the populations of the two countries was attributed to the high consumption of mono-unsaturated rich olive oil included in a healthy diet comprising whole grain, fruits and vegetables. It reflected the benefits of good fat.
Olive oil differs from other oils in that it is derived from a fruit rather than a seed and has among the highest concentrations of polyphenols, MUFA and vitamin E. These special features are responsible for several of its health benefits. The polyphenols, vitamin E and A lead to high antioxidant levels, which lower bad cholesterol (LDL), blood pressure, risk of heart disease and cancer. The higher the polyphenol content, the greater are the health benefits.
The high MUFA content is responsible for increase in good cholesterol levels, improvement of blood sugar levels in diabetics and reduction of abdominal obesity.
Olive oil comes in a number of varieties: Extra-virgin, virgin, pure / refined/ light, and pomace. Extra-virgin or the first pressed olive oil is the highest quality. This oil has the highest polyphenol content. Virgin olive oil is a slightly lower category based on acidity levels less than 2 per cent. Olive oil (pure / refined), with an acidity of less than 3 per cent, is obtained by refining virgin olive oils (not olive-pomace oils) that have a high acidity level. Pomace or olive seed oil is extracted from the pulp or paste that is left over by using high heat and solvents.
Should be only oils used
Remember, there is no perfect oil. A balance of MUFA (mono-unsaturated fatty acids), PUFA (poly-unsaturated fatty acids) and saturated fat is good for health. Olive oil combined with mustard oil, sesame, canola or rice bran oil as a part of healthy lifestyle can go a long way to promote health and prevent diseases. Fatty fish, flaxseeds and walnuts are good adjuncts.
Extra-virgin not for cooking
Contrary to popular belief, olive oil has a high smoking point and one of the most heat stable oils. In other words, quality extra virgin olive oils (with low free fatty acids) can be used for cooking and frying.
‘Pure’ is good
‘Pure’ or simply ‘Olive oil’ is usually a blend of extra-virgin and refined olive oil and is not the same as extra-virgin or virgin olive oil. It is refined, low on nutrients and does not provide the same benefits of extra-virgin olive oil.
Author is a clinical nutritionist and founder of http://www.theweightmonitor.com and Whole Foods India