Olives & Olive Oil: Fad or Fab?
If you have ever watched Rachael Ray, the popular TV chef on Food Network, you are, in all likelihood, already familiar with EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), a term she has successfully turned into a fad. But it is not just she and other chefs who are raving about olive oil; for decades, scientists, researchers, and nutritionists have been, too. In fact, the history of olive oil is so ancient that the English word “oil” has roots in the Latin word “oleum” (oil/olive oil) and the Greek “elaoin” (olive tree).
Which begs the question: are olives and olive oil more than just a fad?
According to Islamic scholars, one of the reasons God swears by one of His creations in the Quran is because that creation has a special significance. It is thus interesting to note that God begins Surah (Chapter) Tin (The Fig) by taking an oath in the name of the fig, the olive, and by Mount Sinai, where the olive tree grows (95:1-3).
The olive is also mentioned in the ayah (verse) of Noor (24:35), where God calls the olive tree “blessed,” and also by name in several other places in the Quran as one of His Signs (16:11 and 6:99).
In Surah Muminoon (The Believers), God says, “And [We brought forth] a tree issuing from Mount Sinai which produces oil and food for those who eat” (Quran 23:20).
Ibn Umar narrates that the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him, [PBUH]) said, “Eat olive oil and anoint yourself with it, for it comes from a blessed tree” (Tirmidhi 4221).
In As-Suyuti’s Medicine of the Prophet, we know that the Prophet (PBUH) also used to say that olive oil is the medicine of the poor.
So the Quran and Hadith point to at least three different uses of olives/olive oil: as food, as lotion, and as medicine.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when nutrition research pioneer, Ancel Keys, carried out the Seven Countries Study, he noticed that people in Crete, Greece, and southern Italy lived longer than others in the study. These people also had lower rates of heart disease and even some cancers, like those of the breast, colon, and skin. Keys firmly believed that the diet of these Mediterranean people explained, in large part, the low disease rates.
Since then, interest in the Mediterranean diet and olive oil in particular, has deepened, especially since more and more studies yield data supporting the oil’s role in maintaining health and preventing disease.
The latest, and perhaps the strongest, evidence has come from the recent PREDIMED trial in Spain. This nearly five-year study determined that there had been significantly fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from cardiovascular disease in the groups that were adhering to a Mediterranean diet rich in either olive oil or nuts than in the low-fat diet group. Moreover, the olive oil group had the best outcomes.
The Mediterranean diet is rich not only in olive oil but also in fiber, fish, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. But what is interesting is that, compared to diets of other countries, the Mediterranean diet actually has a relatively high fat content. Not only that, but about 20 percent of the total calories in this diet come from olive oil alone, making it the diet’s major fat source.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and National Cholesterol Education Program recommend 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from fat. According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, achieving intake of total fat within the recommended range (20 to 35 percent) is an important goal, but the quality of fat in the diet is equally important. Altering fat consumption, instead of reducing total fat, might be more advantageous to health and chronic-disease risk reduction.
Oils are made up of three kinds of fatty acids: monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and saturated fatty acids (SFA). The difference lies in the percentages of each fatty acid found in an oil.
The problem with SFAs is that they increase the bad cholesterol, LDL, in the blood. MUFAs, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect, increasing good cholesterol levels and lowering bad.
One tablespoon of olive oil, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Nutrient Database, is composed of over 72 percent MUFA, over 10 percent PUFA (both good fats), and about 13 percent SFA (the bad fats). Conversely, palm kernel oil is 81 percent SFA!
“Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the oil obtained from olives that have been cold-pressed once,” explains Suha Najjar, a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist. “Since this is a physical process, it is the best method of extraction and allows the nutrients in olive oil to be preserved. Heating would denature (cause degradation of) the nutrients.”
“Virgin olive oil is obtained from olives that have been cold-pressed twice,” Najjar continued. “This oil is lighter in color than EVOO and has a lower level of polyphenols, which are the healthful components of the oil.”
The remaining paste (pomace) still contains a small quantity, about 5 to 10 percent, of oil that cannot be extracted by further pressing, but only with chemical solvents. Najjar says this is what is called “light” olive oil and is the cheapest olive oil available in the market. “To obtain this oil, both heat and chemical extraction is used, which leads to a significant reduction in the nutrient-content of the oil,” says the 2013-14 chair of the Muslims in Dietetics and Nutrition (MIDAN).
In general, the physical methods used to produce olive oil preserve many of its health-promoting constituents. This is not seen with other vegetable and seed oils, which tend to be more refined.
Olive oil is high in oleic acid (an MUFA), which is the component that contributes not just to the antioxidant properties of the oil but also its stability and shelf-life. Depending on a number of factors, including the type of olives used, the soil used to grow them, the extraction process, and even the time of harvest, the level of oleic acid in the oil varies between 55 and 83 percent.
The oil is also rich in antioxidants (phenols, tocopherols) and Vitamin E, all of which protect the cells of our body from free radical damage. Extra virgin olive oil has the highest concentration of phenolic compounds and, therefore, has the highest anti-oxidant activity. The phenolic component also prevents cellular DNA damage.
Olive oil also has squalene (an organic compound that is a metabolic precursor of steroids) in many times the concentrations seen in other foods and oils. Also, its levels are not significantly different in extra virgin versus virgin olive oil. Although this component of olive oil gets distributed throughout the body, the majority is transported to the skin. Exposure to high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes the formation of carcinogenic singlet oxygen species within the skin, and the high concentration of squalene is thought to play a role in scavenging them.
Another bonus is that olive oil does not have transfats (TFA). TFAs are known to increase heart disease and diabetes risk. They are usually produced as part of industrial hydrogenation processes, so the more refined the oil is, the more likely it is to have TFAs.
Television chefs are often seen cooking with olive oil. Is there any advantage in doing so?
“Olive oil should not be used for cooking or frying,” says Najjar, “especially at high temperatures, which causes nutrients in the oil to be lost.”
Cooking with olive oil beyond its smoke point (the point at which a gaseous vapor becomes visible) causes its chemical structure to change. This process can produce the unhealthy transfats.
Also, the purer the olive oil, the lower its smoke point. This makes extra virgin olive oil the least beneficial for cooking.
Olive oil is thus best used in its raw form, in salads and hummus, for example.
Olives are usually classified as green or black. Color aside, what’s the difference? “Typically, the unripe olives are green and the ripe ones are black,” says Najjar.
Canned olives, which have usually been cured or pickled, contain a great deal of sodium. The curing process also removes much of the polyphenols in the fruit. However, Najjar clarifies, “[After curing,] the green ones are [still relatively] rich in polyphenols, the component that has the maximum health benefits. But it is the black olives that are best for harvesting olive oil.”
Recent research has focused on the contribution the various components of olive oil individually make to its reported health benefits. These have been studied in great detail and have been found to have a beneficial effect in either the prevention or treatment of a variety of diseases including hypertension; coronary artery disease; rheumatoid arthritis; cancers of the breast, colon, and skin; and even intestinal and respiratory infections.
Apart from its culinary uses, olive oil has been traditionally utilized in soap-making, as an oil lamp fuel, and in skin care.