The Golden Elixir of Life
If you utter the words “healthy fats,” one of the first images that will undoubtedly come to mind will be golden-coloured olive oil. As the awareness grows that healthy fats are indeed powerful nutritional building blocks required for a healthy body, more and more people are choosing to swap refined vegetable oils and damaging hydrogenated oils that were once the mainstay for other healthier choices.
Olive oil has had a rich history dating back to the 6th millennium BCE where it was used not only for dietary purposes, but also therapeutically as a medicine, a cosmetic, a fuel in oil lamps and in ritual and religious ceremony. Various ceramic amphorae from Ancient Greece and Rome have been unearthed, the most famous of which are the vessels from the Minoan civilization in Crete. Not only prized as a commodity, olive oil was revered in the ancient world, so much so that Homer called it liquid gold.
Today we recognize olive oil as a necessary staple in a healthy diet with numerous preventative and therapeutic benefits. Olive oil has been recommended for years as part of the Mediterranean diet for its heart-healthy beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids known as MUFAs. It contains roughly 70% monounsaturated oleic acid with 13% saturated palmitic acid and 15% polyunsaturated linoleic acid.
The bulk of the research surrounding olive oil centres upon its benefits for cardiovascular health particularly in the prevention of hypercholesterolaemia, serum lipoprotein levels and atherosclerosis, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and thrombotic risk. The polyphenol antioxidants in olive oil prevent LDL from being oxidized and provide free radical scavenging ability thereby protecting DNA from oxidative damage. Monounsaturated oleic acid is extremely cardio-protective and has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.
Beyond this, olive oil has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic and neuro-protective activity and recent research suggests that olive oil may play a role in regulating satiety. Olive oil is also beneficial for those with Type 2 Diabetes as oleic acid has been shown to contribute to the reduction of insulin requirements, with an improvement of both the lipid profile and the glycemic index.
Navigating the olive oil section in any supermarket is certainly a challenge. There are so many varieties and processing methods available. Obviously choosing an organic olive oil needs to be first on the checklist. The second consideration needs to be whether it is truly cold-pressed and extra-virgin. While cold-pressed and extra-virgin are generally considered to be top grades in terms of olive oil processing, even these two terms have sliding scales of quality and are often not what they appear to be. Cold-processing is a loose definition that can result in varying interpretations and temperatures. There is still a considerable amount of heat generated inside the oil press and the internal process is usually above the temperature considered raw and so the oil comes out in quite a warm state. The lower the temperature, the better the olive oil for there is the least amount of degradation to the delicate polyphenols and a better representation of fatty acids.
Olive oil has a low smoke point and so it is best not to apply high heat to the oil so as not to degrade the delicate fats. Use olive oil on salads, raw or steamed vegetables, side dishes, in dips and on any other finished recipe. Add 1-2 tablespoons to any superfood smoothie or enjoy as is right off the spoon.
It is extremely important to note that beneficial carotenoid antioxidants or the yellow, orange and red pigments found in fruits, vegetables and micro-algae such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene are fat soluble and so require fat in order to ensure absorption and bio-availability. Many people discuss the importance of these antioxidants, but don’t consider this crucial point. I always recommend that olive oil or coconut oil be added to superfood smoothies and green juices for this very reason, to ensure that you are actually getting the beneficial antioxidant compounds out of your nutrient-dense superfoods. This is also true for all salads and other vegetable dishes, soups and sauces. Beyond culinary use, olive oil also makes for an incredible skin beauty treatment and serum, as a hair and scalp mask and massage oil.
In my opinion it is not enough to say that olive oil should be a part of a healthy diet. Instead it should be considered as a necessary therapeutic supplement that is needed on a daily basis as important as probiotics and fibre. It is always fascinating for me to see the full historical trajectory of any given food, particularly when research substantiates the therapeutic benefits of it. There is no doubt that ancient people intuitively understood the majesty and magic of this golden elixir of life.
Renita Rietz is a health and nutrition writer and speaker who educates on the phytotherapeutic potential of indigenous foods and plants for prevention and regeneration. email@example.com