Olive oil is made by crushing and pressing ripe olives. Oil is squeezed out of the olive fruit under pressure, and at low temperature. This process is called “cold pressing” as it generates very little heat. As a result, the oil retains its natural flavor, color and nutritional value. Olive oil, unlike other vegetable oils, does not need any further processing and can be consumed as it is.
Olives have been grown since prehistoric times, and they are thought to have originated in Crete, in the Mediterranean region. Though olives are grown in many parts of the world today, the largest producers of olive oil are Italy, Spain and Greece. Olive oil is a part of the diet of people living along the Mediterranean Sea. Its use in other countries of the world has become popular over the last few decades, especially due the beneficial effects of olive oil linked with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Types of Olive Oil
There are different varieties of olive oil depending on the amount of processing involved. These are:
Extra Virgin: This is obtained from the first pressing of olives to extract oil. Extra virgin oil is least processed, is extracted using the cold press method and has no off flavors. It has a delicate flavor and is one of the most health promoting types of oils. It is rich in monounsaturated fats and is believed to have a number of health benefits.
Virgin: This is also of high quality and good taste. However, virgin olive oil has a higher acidity level as compared to extra virgin. Free oleic acid is a marker of acidity, and virgin oil has a higher percentage of free oleic acid.
Pure: Contrary to its name, pure olive oil is actually a combination of refined and virgin olive oils. It may undergo some processing and refining and will not have the delicate taste and flavor of the virgin olive oils.
Light: It is not even considered as part of classification of olive oils. It could be a combination of refined and olive oils, thus retaining only a mild olive flavor.
Olive oil that comes from the final pressing is inedible, and is used in detergents, cosmetics, soap, textiles etc.
People living in Mediterranean region were found to have lower incidence of heart disease, in spite of consuming a high fat diet. This led to an interest in the health benefits of olive oil, as the “Mediterranean diet” consisted of olive oil as a staple in the diet.
Olive Oil and Heart Disease: Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, a fact which makes it beneficial for the heart. It raises the High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) or the good cholesterol, and controls Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) or the bad cholesterol. It is also a rich source of many polyphenols, which are believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Extra virgin oils are considered to provide the best protection as they have a high content of phenols.
Olive oil is cleared from the blood faster than other oils. This may have a protective action against development of atherosclerosis, which is a precursor for heart disease. It also reduces blood clot formation, thereby, offering greater protection against heart disease.
Thus, Inclusion of extra virgin oil as the main source of dietary fat, combined with a diet high in plant foods, can considerably reduce the risk of heart disease.
What can I do?
Olive oil is highly-prized not only for its health benefits, but also for its wonderful flavor. The best oil is a blend of oil from a mixture of red-ripe (not green and not fully ripe) olives and a smaller proportion of oil from green olives of a different variety. Cold-pressing, a chemical-free process using only pressure, produces a higher quality of olive oil which is naturally lower in acidity.
How to Choose the Best Olive Oil
Here are the different categories:
- Extra virgin olive oil: cold-pressed result of the first pressing of the olives, with only 1% acid; considered the finest and fruitiest, and thus the most expensive; ranges from a crystalline champagne color to greenish-golden to bright green; generally, the deeper the color, the more intense the olive flavor.
- Virgin olive oil: also a first-press oil, with a slightly higher acidity level of between 1-3%
- Fino olive oil: (meaning fine in Italian) is a blend of extra virgin and virgin olive oils
- Light olive oil: This version contains the same amount of beneficial monounsaturtaed fats as regular olive oil, but due to the refining process, it is lighter in color and has essentially no flavor. This makes it a good choice for baking and other purposes where the heavy flavor might not be desirable. This process also gives it a higher smoking point, making it a prime candidate for high-heat cooking.