There is no doubt that EVOO does contain health benefits, however how do we know what they actually are? In this blog I am going to try to unravel some of the proven health benefits of EVOO, but first of all it is important to note that the health benefits decrease as the oil ages and will be almost non-existent two years after harvest date (depending on how it is stored/packaged), so ALWAYS look for a harvest date when purchasing your olive oil. Remember that “Extra Virgin” appearing on the label DOES NOT mean it necessarily is Extra Virgin. There are no laws in Australia preventing people from mislabeling food products like this so always look for Harvest Date and/or the Australian Olive Association’s Code of Practice logo.
Isn’t Olive Oil really high in calories?
Yes, olive oil is a fat and therefore high in calories. BUT - it is a good fat and used correctly it will help you lose weight. Good fats (found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, etc) will help you feel full and prevent overeating by sending a message to your brain. There are plenty of studies to show that people eating good fats daily are leaner. It will also help you burn fat more easily especially around the waist and stomach whilst helping your body absorb vitamins and minerals. If you’re concerned about your caloric intake then cut back on saturated fats and sugar (and I don’t just mean in your coffee. Read the labels of the food you eat. Have you seen how much sugar is in white bread?!)
EVOO contains a unique combination of monounsaturated fats, polyphenols and phytosterols. A diet rich in EVOO has been proven to decrease levels of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) and increase (or maintain) levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL). It has also been proven to reduce high blood pressure (another risk factor for cardiovascular disease) by decreasing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Those with diabetes will know that they carry a high risk of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Studies in the late 1980’s showed that individuals on a high olive oil intake had improved plasma glucose level and reduced insulin requirements.
Oleic acid (found in olive oil) inhibits hydrochloric acid secretion and therefore has a beneficial effect on gastric ulcers. It also slows down the rate of gastric emptying making the person feel full earlier than they would otherwise and hence decreasing the intake of food. Oleic acid also plays an important role in the emptying of the gall bladder, thereby decreasing the chance of forming gallstones.
Olive oil will also increase the intestinal absorption of some minerals and improve pancreatic function.
Does it prevent the big C?
Cancer is such a complex issue with many different causes and presentations. There has been a long known link between dietary fat and various types of cancers, and it has been suggested that a diet where fats make up over 40% of the calorie intake encourages the development of breast and colon cancer. The good news though, is that most of the blame for the increased rates of cancer lies with polyunsaturated n-6 fatty acids (soya, sunflower, maize oil, etc).
There have been plenty of studies recently that suggest a Mediterranean Diet (high intake of fruit and vegetables, low intake of animal products) results in a low incidence rate of various cancer types. Whilst this includes olive oil, it is important to remember that upping the olive oil intake on its own does not constitute a “Mediterranean Diet.”
There is also a large amount of evidence that shows olive oil has antioxidant effects, thus preventing many diseases and even slowing down the onset of ageing. Its anti-inflammatory effects have also been well documented over the last 30 years with even a small amount of evidence pointing towards the benefit of applying olive oil externally to ease pain associated with joint inflammation.
What about butter and coconut oil? Many people say that these are good for you too.
There is no clear research that these saturated fats are good for you. Coconut oil has had a lot of publicity recently because it has been proven to raise “good cholesterol” (HDL), however it also raises “bad cholesterol” (LDL). The latter being conveniently left out of most reports. There have also been studies that show cultures that consume a lot of coconut oil (e.g. Samoa, Cook Islands) have a lower incidence of heart disease than Western societies, however this fails to look at the differences in the diet as a whole. (Not too many hamburgers were served in the Cook Islands in the 1960’s).
There is research that shows the removal of saturated fats (e.g. butter) from a Western diet has little effect on the persons’ health. The lack of change is thought to be a result of substituting the saturated fats with low fat processed sugary foods that wipe out any benefits that could have occurred from deleting saturated fats from the diet.
A final note on cooking with EVOO.
EVOO is ideal for frying food. Even deep-frying of food. It does not have a low smoking point as is often suggested. Only poor quality olive oil does. EVOO will only start to smoke at about 200 degrees Celsius and is therefore ideal for frying and is a much healthier alternative than other available oils.
And a tip for when tasting olive oil… If it burns the back of your throat and makes you cough and splutter, then it contains all of the health benefits! That’s the polyphenols sliding down your oesophagus.
So there you go. A brief summary of the main (and well documented) health benefits of EVOO. Remember though that the health benefits are only found in REAL Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Most olive oil in Australia is NOT Extra Virgin (even if the label says it is). The only way to be sure is if it has the Australian Olive Association’s logo on it.