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If it's all fat, can it be at all good?

July 14, 1998|By Lynn F. Little

Research shows that olive oil offers health benefits. How can something that is pure fat be healthy?

Studies done in the '60s showed that people living along the Mediterranean Sea had lower cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of heart disease than Americans. Their secret? Their primary source of fat was olive oil, a monounsaturated fat. This type of fat seems to lower LDL levels (harmful type of blood cholesterol) without affecting the HDL (good type of blood cholesterol). Many supporting studies have been conducted since then, including much publicized research at Harvard University.

Studies show that olive oil has the highest percentage (77 percent) of monounsaturated fat of any dietary oil, making it a heart-healthy cooking option. The monounsaturated fat in oil, when substituted for saturated fats like butter, can reduce low density lipoprotein (LDL) - an artery clogging cholesterol depositor - in your blood. Olive oil also maintains high-density lipoprotein (HDL) that prevents cholesterol from obstructing your arteries. Olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E.

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Olive oil is not the be all and end all of healthy eating.

Each tablespoon of olive oil, whether "light" or not, is 100 percent fat and carries approximately 120 calories. This means it has more than twice as many calories as an equal amount of protein or carbohydrate. High consumption of olive oil may keep you healthy, but not necessarily thin. Moderation is the key. Since olive oil has a richer texture, aroma and flavor than many other oils, you won't need as much anyway.

Olive oil is pressed from the fruit of the olive tree. Both the type of olive tree and the conditions under which it is grown, such as the climate and soil, affect the flavor of the olives produced and thus the oil pressed from the fruit. How it is processed also makes a big difference in how strong or lightly flavored the finished oil will be.

Extra virgin or just olive?




Extra virgin olive oil is from the first cold pressing of the olives. This is the most common type of olive oil sold in the United States. It is usually higher priced because it offers the widest variety of flavors and is produced in smaller quantities. Extra virgin olive oil is dark green in color and has a rich, fruity taste. This is the oil of choice when a full-bodied flavor is desired, as in salad dressings, marinades and sauces.

A product called simply olive oil is usually a blend of virgin olive oils, some of which have been filtered or refined. These are the classic golden oils, milder in taste than the virgin oils. This is the all-purpose olive oil, great for sauting, stir-frying, in pasta sauces and marinades.

Extra light olive oil refers to flavor, not calories. These oils still have 9 calories per gram, but lend themselves better to recipes that call for a milder flavor such as baking. To keep from being confused with low-calorie, new labeling laws will soon require manufacturers to use mild in place of light. If you never have used olive oil or find the flavor of virgin oil too strong, this is a great oil to use. The pale yellow oil has a subtle flavor that will not carry over into other foods. With the highest smoke point at 468 degrees, this is the appropriate olive oil to use for deep-frying and sauting at high temperatures.

Olive oil, like other oils, is degraded by exposure to heat and light. It can be stored in a tightly sealed container away from heat and light for up to two years. During hot months, the refrigerator is a good storage place, although the oil will solidify and turn cloudy. Simply bring the oil back to room temperature before using; the texture and flavor will remain.

No matter which olive oil you choose, remember that all oil is 100 percent fat and has 14 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon.

Liberal use of any fat and/or oil can make you fat. Use olive oil in place of other fats like margarine, butter or other oils. When used in moderation, it is a tasty part of low-fat eating.

For information on food safety, call Maryland Cooperative Extension Office at 301-791-1504.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension.

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