When talking about Mediterranean Diet and healthy food, there’s always a common denominator: extra virgin olive oil. This suggests how essential this food can be for our health, especially in relation to diseases of affluence like obesity or high blood pressure caused by a stressful lifestyle and wrong diet.
What exactly is extra virgin olive oil and how is it different from other cooking fats?
Where is it mostly produced?
What are its benefits on our health and how can we use it in our daily life?
In the following article we are going to answer all of these questions.
Are you ready to learn why extra virgin olive oil is your closest ally in living a healthy life?
Extra virgin olive oil identikit
Extra virgin olive oil is a liquid cooking fat extracted from olives by means of cold mechanical extraction.
This means that olives are crushed, then their paste is churned until the droplets of oil agglomerate and separate from fruit pulp and water. “Cold” refers to the fact that the churning (malaxation is actually the technical word) is conducted without heating the olives pulp. Increasing the temperature would make the process easier but at the same time it would cause the oxidation of the oil. This, in turn, would decrease the quality of the final product and the olive oil benefits on our health.
Extra virgin olive oil is therefore the highest-grade of olive oils and it’s obtained with the same procedure used by ancient populations. In fact, evidence was found of olive oil presses used by ancient Greeks and Romans, so we can say that extra virgin olive oil was born over 5000 years ago. Those populations definitely knew how to eat tasty food and live healthy!
You might wonder what makes extra virgin olive oil so special, besides the extraction procedure: it’s all about its intrinsic organoleptic and chemical qualities.
For example, extra virgin olive oil’s free acidity is below 0.8%, which means that the amount of free oleic acid released by triglycerides is very low. This is good news for both our health and the organoleptic qualities of the oil itself: a higher rate of free acidity entails a higher risk of rancidity.
The color of extra virgin olive oil is golden-green and its flavor is unique: fruity, slightly bitter and somehow pungent. You can even smell its aromatic, fresh olive scent when you open the bottle.
Extra virgin olive oil is not just a cooking fat: it’s an experience. It’s genuine, rustic yet elegant, as only high-quality products can be.
Extra virgin olive oil versus “regular” oils
When you are at the grocer’s, it is possible that you don’t always pay attention to the quality of olive oil you are buying. We often think that “olive oil” and “extra virgin olive oil” are synonyms – but that’s simply not the case.
As we said, only extra virgin olive oil is completely derived by cold mechanical extraction.
Every other kind of vegetable oil, including non-virgin olive oil, is produced with chemical procedures and industrial refining.
As you can imagine, refined oils have more free oleic acid, higher risk of rancidity and an overall shorter shelf life. Their organoleptic qualities are worse too: no bitterness and no olive scent, flavor or even color. You can recognize them quite easily, after a bit of practice.
But what interests us the most is that they are also not as healthy as extra virgin olive oil, as we will see more in detail later on.
Next time you are at the grocer’s, then, skip all the bottles whose labels state “Olive oil”, “Pure olive oil”, “Light olive oil” and go straight to “Extra virgin olive oil”. Your taste buds and health will thank you!
Italian olive oil: the best extra virgin
As it happens for all precious things, extra virgin olive oil is not so common.
It needs to meet specific productive, chemical and organoleptic standards in order to receive the “extra virgin” label. This is the reason why, in most producing countries, less than 10% of the olive oil production is labeled as extra virgin.
Some Mediterranean countries represent exceptions to this rule, though. They are Italy, Spain and Greece, that produce more than 90% of the European olive oil.
Italy is the second European producer and almost 70% of Italian olive oil is extra virgin. 37 of the extra virgin Italian oils also have a DOP certification (Protected Designation of Origin).
Enough with the numbers: we only wanted to point out that Italy really cares about this special and precious good.
Sardinia is one of the main regions where Italian olive oil is produced and it’s home to some of the best extra virgin olive oils of the country.
If you’ve ever been to this island, you know how many olive groves you can find there. Sardinian weather is perfect for olive plantations: mild and dry all year round, with a gentle breeze and a warm sun that infuses olives with natural flavor.
The majority of olive oil producing companies are really small and they often use traditional systems.
It’s no surprise that Italian olive oil is particularly good there! And by “good” we mean both for its taste and for your health.
Extra virgin olive oil benefits on health
Despite what most people think, not all fats are bad for our health. Extra virgin olive oil is a perfect example of this. Around 99% of it is made of lipids but it’s the healthiest fat you can find. That’s why both Mediterranean Diet and up-to-date nutrition experts suggest to use it regularly.
Olive oil benefits are related to its dietary values. Here’s what it contains:
- Monounsaturated fats (around 75%)
- Saturated fats (around 13%)
- Polyunsaturated fats (around 11%), composed by Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Unsaturated fats have many positive effects on health: they protect against cardiovascular diseases and reduce LDL (also called “bad cholesterol”), lowering the risk of heart attack. Omega-3 reduces the risk of breast cancer in women.
The benefits of olive oil are evident not only on our body but also our mind: polyunsaturated fats are related to better cognitive and behavioral performance, while monounsaturated fats lead to less anger and irritability.
Vitamins reinforce the positive effects of Italian olive oil on cardiovascular health and cancer prevention, helping against medical conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.
What really differentiates extra virgin olive oil from the average olive oil is the amount of antioxidants it contains. We have already mentioned the pungent taste of this unique oil, right? Well, that taste is due to the higher amount of phenolic compounds in it. Their strong antioxidant activity is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, besides helping prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
All these benefits are able to contrast the diseases of affluence that are so widespread nowadays, even in Hong Kong. Health issues like cancer, heart diseases and hypertension can be tackled through healthy food and an overall healthy lifestyle.
Extra virgin olive oil, especially Italian and Sardinian one, can be one of your best allies in this tasty battle.
How to cook with Italian olive oil
When you use Italian olive oil for cooking, there are a few things you need to consider.
First of all, extra virgin olive oils can have different flavors. The scents come from the cultivar, environment and production process. This means that, in order to get the best experience for your taste buds, you should pair the right oil to the right food.
In the second place, in order to preserve the amazing taste of extra virgin olive oil, it’s actually better not to cook it at all.
One of the best and purest ways to enjoy it is just drizzling a slice of toasted bread with it and eating it as it is.
Other absolutely simple ideas are:
- replace your salad dressing with a super healthy and flavorful spoon of Italian olive oil
- use it as a finishing touch over a pasta-based dish
- for a healthy snack, dip some crudités in a mix of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt
If you are into Sardinian olive oil, you can drizzle it on Carasau bread obtaining the delicious Guttiau bread – a perfect appetizer or snack. Or you can use it as a dressing for carpaccio (thinly sliced raw meat) or fish dishes.
You can also use extra virgin olive oil for cooking: its smoke point (that is the moment it starts to smoke and form unhealthy compounds) is very high. You can fry, stir fry and also bake with it. Of course the process will change some of its organoleptic qualities, but it won’t make it unhealthy. It’s only up to your taste!
Now you know exactly what extra virgin olive oil is and why it’s such a precious ally for your health. It’s also the perfect companion for tasty meals: as we often said, eating healthy doesn’t mean eating flavorless food.
That’s why we think that this liquid gold should really be part of your everyday diet. We are sure you think that too, so here’s our selection of incredibly good Sardinian extra virgin: choose your favorite one and start enjoying the benefits of olive oil.