Latin name: Olea europaea
What is Olive Oil?
Olive oil, long a staple of the Mediterranean diet, is made from crushing and then pressing the olive fruit from the Olea europaea tree. Olea is the Latin word for “oil.”
Olives, one of the oldest known foods, are believed to have originated in Crete as far back as perhaps 7,000 years ago, and then their use spread rapidly throughout Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. The oil of the olive has been consumed since at least 3000 BC.
Olive oil comes in a variety of grades that indicate the degree to which it has been processed. Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the olives and boasts the most delicate flavor and most antioxidant benefits. Virgin olive oil, also derived from the first pressing, has a higher acidity level. Pure olive oil usually refers to a lower-quality oil that was produced from subsequent pressings.
Recently, the research spotlight has been on the Mediterranean diet, which prominently features this valuable oil; the suggestion that this diet may be linked to a reduced risk of heart disease has lead to olive oil’s increased popularity in the United States in the past couple of decades.
What are the health benefits of Olive Oil?
Olive oil has been found to have beneficial effects on blood lipids, and it may even lower blood pressure, through its high concentration of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E.
Monounsaturated fats are thought to exert a protective effect on the body’s cells, which, particularly combined with the antioxidant protection of vitamin E, can lower the risk of damage and inflammation. The less processed extra-virgin and virgin varieties have more monounsaturated fatty acids—most notably oleic acid—than other olive oil and contain more antioxidant polyphenols, supporting heart health and lowering “bad” cholesterol.
Evidence suggests that people who use olive oil regularly, particularly when it is in place of other less-healthy fats, tend to have much lower rates of heart disease, atherosclerosis, colon cancer, diabetes, and asthma. However, because olive oil is a fat, albeit a good one, it is still a good idea to limit your intake to no more than 2 tablespoons a day.
Are there any precautions for Olive Oil?
Olive oil, extra virgin in particular, which undergoes minimal processing, should not be heated to temperatures above 250 degrees F.; olive oil will break down at higher temperatures, which destroys most of the nutrients. Instead, use olive oil in sauces and dressings, but not baking and cooking.
Where can I find Olive Oil?
Olive oil can be found in grocery stores and specialty food markets. Organic extra virgin olive oil, though more costly than other oils, offers a rich flavor and many heart-healthy benefits.
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