Food for Thought
The merits of the Mediterranean diet are making a splash in the news these days. Not only is olive oil a staple of this diet; it is actually the principal fat listed in the Mediterranean diet pyramid (see the May 2003 issue of IDEA Health & Fitness Source).
Olive oil contains a variety of antioxidants and is high in monounsaturated fats (the “good” type of fat). It also contains vitamins A, B, E and K. According to the ADA, olive oil has been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol and is thought to offer some protection against the risk of heart disease. Some research suggests that olive oil aids in the passage of food through the intestines.
Olive oil comes in a number of varieties, such as extra virgin, virgin, light and regular. These designations are determined mostly by how olives are pressed and prepared into oil; these differences tend to affect the flavor of the oil, not its nutritional value. As a rule, extra-virgin olive oil is lowest in acid, resulting in a fruity taste and aroma, meaning you don’t need to use as much to enjoy the flavor. All types are high in total fat and calories, so go easy on portions used!
In terms of cooking, olive oil is the most stable of fats, which means it stands up well to high temperatures. Its high smoke point (410 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it ideal for frying. The digestibility of olive oil is not affected when it is heated, even if the oil is reused several times. However, experts recommend that olive oil should not be reused more than four or five times. Olive oil can be used as a substitute for butter or margarine in most main courses.
If properly stored, unopened olive oil has a shelf life of up to a year. Once opened, however, olive oil should be used within 6 months to retain the best flavor. Experts recommend storing the oil in a cool, dry, dark place since exposure to light and heat hastens oxidation and rancidity. Although it is usually cheaper to buy olive oil in bulk, it is best to transfer small amounts to a stainless steel dispenser for everyday use to extend its shelf life.