A Key Ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet
Extra virgin Olive Oil is the edible oil extracted from the fruit of the Olea europaea tree.
It is an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. In fact, when local people say “oil,” they usually mean extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
They use it to prepare almost every dish: raw -“a crudo -” to season vegetables, steamed food, and make marinades; cooked, to bake vegetables, and much more.
In this post, you will find:
- The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil
- How to enjoy olive oil every day
- How to choose olive oil
- How to keep olive oil’s health benefit
- Olive oil in natural cosmetics
For the sake of ease, I will talk about olive oil below, meaning extra virgin olive oil.
The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil
According to research, olive oil is one of the reasons people in the Mediterranean regions enjoy good health and long life.
With a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grain, and pulses – and poor in red meat – olive oil is their primary source of fat.
Its composition varies with the olive tree cultivar. In general, olive oil is composed of about 99% of fatty acids and 1% by antioxidants.
Among the fatty acids, a big part is unsaturated fatty acids (good fats), which makes it a healthy fat.
The EVOO is cold-extracted mechanically from the olive, leaving its health benefits intact.
In Italy, we commonly use olive oil to help digestion and transit.
We simply add it raw on steamed dishes, sometimes combined with lemon juice and fresh herbs.
According to research, extra virgin olive oil may:
- Protect the heart by reducing blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels.
- Reduce inflammation
- Reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Promotion of gut health
- Protect from chronic diseases
Some researchers think that thanks to olive oil, Mediterranean people eat a lot of vegetables. In fact, adding raw olive oil enhances the taste of vegetables in a healthy way. So EVOO is important because of its many health benefits and because it helps eat vegetables and pulses in salads and cooked foods.
How to Enjoy Olive Oil Every Day
The best way to enjoy olive oil is to use it raw to season your dishes. In Italy, we like to put a drizzle of oil on the salad and steamed food.
In Spring and Summer, we love making Pinzimonio, one of the simplest, tastiest, and healthiest appetizers. It consists in putting fresh vegetables in olive oil with salt and pepper.
We also use it to bake vegetables, make pizza dough, pastry, pasta sauces, pasta sauté, and much more.
Here is a selection of my favorite olive oil recipes
- Basil Pesto Sauce
- Eggplant Stuffed with Caponata
- Baked Rice Stuffed Tomatoes
- Roasted Sweet Peppers
- Cherry Tomato Sauce
One important thing to know when using any oil is its smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature above which oil starts producing a toxic substance, acrylamide. This substance not only gives a sour taste to the dish, but it’s also carcinogenic. The smock point of the olive oil varies with the variety of the olive from which it is produced. In general, it’s about 190-200°C. It’s important not to cook above this temperature. Some olive oil has a smoke point above 200°C, but generally, the labels do not show it.
For frying purposes, the best is to check the oil temperature and stay below the smoke point. The peanut oil smoke point is 230°C. So, for frying, it is more suitable than olive oil.
Comparative table of the smoke point of the most commonly used oils
|Canola oil (rapeseed) – unrefined|
Canola oil (rapeseed) – refined
|Coconut oil – unrefined, dry expeller pressed, virgin||177°C|
|Extra virgin olive oil, low acidity, high quality|
Extra virgin olive oil
|Peanut oil||227–229 °C|
|Sesame oil||177 °C|
|Soybean oil||234 °C|
|Sunflower oil||227 °C[|
In general, the more refined an oil is, the higher its smoke point for the same type of oil. The problem is that the refining process depletes the protective and antioxidant qualities of the oil, making it less nutritionally attractive.
As mentioned before, extra virgin olive oil is mechanically extracted from olives (cold pressed). The quality of olive oil depends on many factors, such as the variety of the olive tree, the way it is grown and harvested, extraction, bottling, storage, and cooking method. The time between harvesting and milling is also crucial. The shorter it is, the better the oil will be.
How to choose olive oil
Bottles of olive oil can be found on the market at meager prices. I have seen olive oils even bottled in plastic bottles. In the United States, I have seen a bottle of coded extra virgin olive oil with a lot of Italian on the label at a price I have never seen. Looking then closely, it was a mixture of extra virgin olive oil of dubious Italian origin mixed with some soybean oil….
In all this mare magnum, how to navigate the choice of olive oil? Here are my 5 top recommendations:
- Choose extra virgin olive oil. It is obtained by cold pressure without chemical substances, keeping the olive’s health benefits intact.
- Don’t buy the cheapest olive oil. It is a sign of poor quality. In Italy, the average price of 14 euros for 0.75 liters of extra virgin olive oil.
- Choose extra virgin olive oil bottled in dark glass bottles.
- Read the label on the olive bottle and choose olive oils with quality certifications such as IGP ( = PGI: “Protected Geographical Indication”) and DOP ( = PDO: “Protected Designation of Origin) in Italy.
- Buy it directly from the producer.
How to keep olive oil’s health benefits
To keep olive oil’s health benefits intact, it’s essential to store it properly. Keep it away from light and heat, and put the cap back on after each use.
How you use olive oil for cooking or seasoning your dishes also influences the effects it has on your body.
The healthiest way is adding olive oil raw directly to vegetables or other foods.
Another healthy way is combining it with tomato, garlic, and onion to make sofrito, a tomato sauce. Scientific research has shown that this cooking method increases the protective function of tomato phytonutrients.
Olive oil can also be used for stir-frying, a Chinese cooking method in which the ingredients are heated in a small amount of very hot oil while stirring in a wok. In order for acrylamide not to form during this process, the cooking must be very quick.
In general, to keep, health benefits, you should not heat olive oil above 200°C.
Olive oil in natural cosmetics
Since ancient times, olive oil has been used as a cleanser, a moisturizer, and massage oil.
For example, in Ancient Rome, olive oil was used for almost all things to do with health and beauty.
Today, it is still a key ingredient in many cosmetic products, such as soaps, lotions, creams, shampoos, and many others.
Local people also use olive oil to soothe their skin and improve the appearance of hair ends, moisturize and nourish dry skin, and chapped lips.
Not all skins, though, are suitable for using olive oil. Before using it, you need to make sure you are not allergic. To verify it, apply a little olive oil to the inside of the forearm. If it gets red, it is better not to use it on your skin.
Below are some examples of how you can use olive oil in body care.
I recommend you prepare your homemade beauty products as you need them to prevent them from going bad and avoid waste. If you prefer to have it ready, you can prepare more and put it in a jar to have it on hand when needed. It’s best to use it within two weeks.
Apply a few drops of olive oil to your lips several times a day. Your lips will shine while being nourished and protected from dehydration.
Lip scrub and body scrub
Olive oil and sugar are an excellent combo for exfoliating the body naturally.
Put a spoonful of olive oil with one of brown sugar in a bowl. Mix well and apply to your lips, massaging gently. Rinse well and dry by toweling lightly. For a softer scrub, add a teaspoon of honey.
Mix 1 cup of unrefined sea salt with 1/4 cup olive oil for smooth and silky skin. Mix well until you obtain a thick paste. Apply in the shower on wet skin with gentle circular motions. Rinse well.
Hand and nails moisturizer
Put a few drops of lemon juice in a spoonful of olive oil. Massage your hands gently, especially your nails and cuticles. Apply in the evening because lemon can cause spots on the skin in contact with sunlight.
Before bedtime, put some olive oil on your hair ends and wrap them in a natural fabric you don’t mind if it gets greasy. The following day, wash your hair with mild natural shampoo. You can repeat this every month. Your hair will appreciate it!
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