Olive Oil and Your Heart

January 12, 2018

People who follow a Mediterranean diet have a better quality of life and a longer one. You read right: according to research, people who eat a Mediterranean type diet live better and longer.


While the diet consists mainly of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds (and in some cases, small amounts of fish or lean meat) which we know are essential to wellness, the real star of the show is extra-virgin olive oil.


Now I know there has been some controversy about olive oil (and there’s an entire faction of experts who think we should all eliminate oil and fats from our diets, but this isn’t about that), but the health benefits of authentic extra-virgin olive oil are too numerous to ignore. Substantial new findings further validate extra-virgin olive oil’s benefits to cardiovascular, bone and brain health. One particular study done on 19,000 participants revealed that those who ate the highest quality foods and most closely adhered to the Mediterranean approach to eating derived the most benefits showing sharp reductions in the risks of stroke and heart disease. The researchers discovered that people who saw the greatest results in their wellness consumed the highest concentrations of polyphenols.


And the source of these polyphenols? Extra-virgin olive oil.


But before you grab your vat of olive oil that was ‘such a good price’ you couldn’t resist it, hold on to your Italian bread.


A large amount of extra-virgin olive oil is not quite what it seems. These counterfeit oils do not naturally meet the high standards to be called “extra-virgin” but that doesn’t stop them from flooding the market. For an oil to be considered authentically “extra-virgin,” it must be made simply by crushing olives and extracting the juice. It is the only cooking oil that is made without the use of chemicals and industrial refining.


It’s simply the juice of fresh, healthy olives which contains, more than any other grade, the health-promoting nutrients that make olive oil famous. Extra-virgin is the highest quality (at only 0.8% acidity) and most expensive olive oil classification. It should have a rich perfume and  flavor of fresh olives.


It must be produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil.


It’s not easy to produce extra-virgin olive oil which is why it’s expensive. A producer must use fresh olives in good condition and monitor every step of the process with great care, because extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t stay extra-virgin forever; the oil will degrade over time. Its two-year shelf life lets us know that after that time, the oil is no longer fresh and nutrient-dense.


So what makes for a great, authentic extra-virgin olive oil? I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and so I will confess to being a bit prejudiced in saying that I think Italian oil is the best. That said, Portugal, Argentina, Tunisia, Greece and other countries are producing lovely oils, as is the Napa Valley right here at home, but Italians have elevated olive oil production to an art form.


When you’re looking for a great olive oil, one that will provide the health benefits you seek, look for what’s known as an estate oil, meaning that the olives grew on one farm. Why is this important?  Olives are tender fruit whose acidity rises if they’re bruised or if they hang around too long before pressing, so when olives are harvested and immediately pressed (within 24 hours), the resulting oil is naturally low in acidity creating what we know as extra-virgin olive oil. Once olives are shipped from other farms or other countries for pressing, they can be bruised and of course, more than 24 hours has passed from harvest to press so the resulting oil is not of the same quality.


Authentic extra-virgin olive oil is pressed from a delicate fruit, but it’s anything but a delicate oil. There’s the “smoke point,” or the temperature at which the oil starts to break down, lose its health benefits and produce chemicals that aren’t all that good for you. And olive oil has a relatively low smoke point — 320°F for extra virgin and 420°F for virgin. So is there a point to using it to sauté your veggies?


Nutritionists say absolutely. Extra-virgin olive oil has gotten a bad rap because people think that simply heating it releases all sorts of unhealthy chemicals, but they’re missing a big piece of the story.


All oils have a temperature at which they start to break down and are no longer considered healthful or tasty. But unless you’re sautéing at a ridiculously high heat or cooking your food with a blow torch, it’s unlikely you’ll reach or exceed the smoke point before the food is cooked.


Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than regular olive oil, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cook with it. Cooking at medium heat (which is what most recipes call for) is 250-350°F so try to cook within that range, so you can enjoy the flavor and health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil expert Doctor Luisito Cercaci assures that olive oil won’t release harmful toxins, even when it’s heated. Extra-virgin olive oil is still more resistant to heat than other oils. 

“Actually, olive oil is one of the most stable vegetable oils under cooking/heating conditions,” says Dr. Cercaci. “In fact, fatty acids composition (mostly formed by monounsaturated fat), allow olive oil to be more resistant than other oils, since it is way less unsaturated than the majority of other vegetable oils.” (Coconut oil, which is having a major moment, has the low smoke point of 350°F.)


Now that we know what extra-virgin olive oil actually is, why should we use it? A new Italian study reveals that while the high oleic acid was thought to be the main source of olive oil’s health benefits, it turns out that it’s the high polyphenols that support our wellness, with “hydroxytyrosol” getting the most credit, contributing to men in the study having a 56% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and an increased lifespan of 9.5 years after the ages of 65.


Triglycerides are long shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease when elevated. The blood marker most commonly evaluated for coronary heart disease risk is LDL cholesterol. The majority of cardiovascular damage caused by LDL comes from its oxidized form. A Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil was able to decrease the degree of LDL oxidative damage by a whopping 36%.


If heart disease isn’t on your mind, it’s important to note that studies done with extra-virgin olive oil and Alzheimer’s Disease has revealed some promising data with olive oil exerting beneficial effects on all major characteristics of the illness.


And then there are your bones. Studies show that sticking to an extra-virgin olive oil-rich diet was associated with a 21% reduced risk of hip fractures. Further, study subjects who consumed the highest amounts of extra-virgin olive oil regularly had a 51% reduced risk of overall fracture.


Finally, if you think fat will make you fat, check this out: after nine weeks of eating a breakfast that included extra-virgin olive oil showed an average weight loss that was 80% higher than the women who didn’t eat olive oil.   


So…is extra-virgin olive oil worth the money? Is eating it that valuable to your wellness? I’d venture that you’ll say yes.