There has been evidence for years that the countries around the Mediterranean Sea are characterized by a much lower incidence of heart diseases and cancer than the European average. Experts attribute this phenomenon mainly to the lifelong consumption of a typical Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, red wine, olive oil, marine products). Let’s take a closer look on the typical product of this area – olive tree. The largest producers of olives are currently Spain and Italy, which supply about 50% of the global harvest. For centuries, olive products (olive oil) have played the most important role in the development of the individual countries – these products served not only as food but were also used in medicine, religion, cosmetics and even sports.
There are many types of olive trees, their fruit is harvested either ripe or unripe – therefore in stores, we can find black or green olives. Olives are being prepared before consumption, because in the raw state, they are bitter and astringent. They are hence being immersed into saline, or being salted and marinated in olive oil.
The most famous product of the olive tree is of course oil – pitted fruit is crushed to a pulp from which the juice is obtained by pressing. This juice is then separated into water and oil in the centrifuge. The particular importance of olive oil lies in the content of imporant nutrients. Cold-pressed olive oil contains approximately 80% of unsaturated fatty acids – the most important of them being oleic acid (belongs to the category of omega-9 acids). About 12% to 15% are saturated fats and very small amount of free fatty acids, which are decisive sign of quality of olive oil. In a quality olive oil, we can also find lecithin, wide range of vitamins (E, A), minerals and phytochemical compounds.
How to recognize a quality olive oil?
The legislation defines several categories of olive oil:
- Extra virgin cold pressed – the best quality product is produced from the first pressing. Does not undergo any chemical treatment. Only this oil can be entitled as “extra virgin”. The content of free fatty acids should not exceed 1%.
- Virgin olive oil – a lower quality alternative to the former category, obtained from olives by mechanical pushing and pressing without the use of other technologies or chemical additives. The content of free fatty acids ranges from 1% to 2%.
- Refined olive oil – obtained by pressing at high pressure and heat, then goes through a chemical treatment.
- Olive oil – a mixture of virgin (25%) and refined oil.
- Grape olive oil – made from the last pressing of olive skins and pips. It’s the residual oil of worst quality, which is mainly used for technical purposes.
Olive oil is valued not only for it’s taste properties, but primarily for the substances that may significantly affect our health. There is evidence that regular consumption of unsaturated fatty acids (in this case oleic acid) reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and may even prevent tumor diseases. In addition, not only that olive oil contains no cholesterol, but the omega-9 fatty acids interestingly reduce the LDL cholesterol too. A significant content of antioxidants (mostly vitamin E) supports the effects of fatty acids, increases vitality and overall antioxidant capacity of our body. For young and adolescents, the regular consumption of olive oil may positively affect growth and bone development.
The extra virgin olive oil also contains various phytochemicals that have been demonstrated to contain a high antioxidant effect (mainly because phenolic compounds), which means positive effect on tumors (skin, breast, lung or colon).
Olive oil nutrition
Olive oil has a wide and diverse range of applicatioins – the most famous is in cold dishes (salads). Many people still believe that the thermal treatment of cold-pressed oils damages them. Decomposition point of extra virgin olive oil is in the range 180-210 °C (around 380 – 400 °F), so don’t be afraid to use it for hot dishes too. If you are not exceeding this temperatures, you will not damage the oil and will not destroy the vital nutrients (due to the fact that every quality olive oil is characterized by its aroma and flavor, which is caused by aromatic substances, these substances will gradually disappear during heat treatment, but the overall nutritional value will not decrease).
When selecting an olive oil, carefully read the label – there must be explicitly stated, what kind of oil it is (extra virgin, virgin, …), the content of monounsaturated (oleic acid) fatty acids should be higher than 71% (7-8% of polyunsaturated), the amount of saturated fats should not exceed 13%. The manufacturer is required to provide all this important information on the product label – if you don’t find it there, don’t buy the product.
The color of oil is a sign of its quality (depending on the color of fruits). If you see some “dirt” at the bottom of the bottle, it’s precipitated lecithins (which is not a sign of poor quality).
During the storage, protect the oil from direct sun and high temperatures – in optimal conditions, the extra virgin oil should last approximately 18 months. Because light reduces the quality of olive oil, it should be filled to dark, preferably green bottles.
And finally, one simple rule: in the case of olive oils, higher price usually does mean higher quality.