When you think about olive oil, one adjective probably comes to mind: healthy. And you're not wrong, there are plenty of studies supporting that thought. Research suggestsÂ that specifically extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) may help reduceÂ the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis.Â But in the midst of all theÂ positive press,Â there are also some controversies and concerns surrounding olive oil. Here's my take on three buzzy topics, plusÂ some advice forÂ reaping the benefits of EVOOÂ whileÂ avoiding the risks.
Olive oil fraud is common
You may have seen aÂ recent 60 Minutes report that exposedÂ rampant fraud in theÂ olive oil industry, due to Mafia corruption. Investigators concluded that as much asÂ 80% of theÂ olive oilÂ sold as EVOO in the U.S.Â is not truly extra-virgin. Instead, some are mixed or lower-quality olive oils. Others may not be olive oil at all, but rather another typeÂ (like sunflower, canola, or soybean)Â with added coloring and flavoring so it mimicsÂ the real thing. Buying fake EVOO is like purchasingÂ a fancy bottle of wine that turns out to beÂ "Two-Buck Chuck,"Â or just grape juice!
What do to:Â This doesn't mean you should give up on EVOO completely, justÂ do a little sleuthing before you buy. For starters:Â high-quality EVOO isnât cheap.Â So if a bottle is a bargain, you should probably be suspicious. Next look at where the oil was produced.Â OneÂ UC Davis reportÂ randomly tested bottles from retail stores and found nearly 70% of imported EVOO didn't pass their purity test, while only 10% of California-produced oil failed. (Keep an eye out for theÂ California Olive Oil Council seal, which requires olive oil to meet stricter standards than those set by the USDA.) If you're interested, check out the fullÂ report, which includesÂ a list of popular brands the university tested.
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How you cook with EVOO can impact your health
A brand new study published in the journalÂ Food Chemistry revealedÂ that cooking veggies inÂ olive oil improves their nutritional value. Researchers found that theÂ effect is two-fold:Â EVOO contains its own antioxidants and thereby increases overall antioxidant levels; and cooking with the oil increasesÂ your body's ability to absorbÂ antioxidants fromÂ the veggies.Â
However, there's debate among health professionals about whether EVOO should be heated at all. Many believe EVOO canât be used in cooking because it has a low smoke pointâthe temperature at whichÂ heated oil begins to smoke continuously, triggering the productionÂ of harmful by-products.Â But sinceÂ EVOOâs smoke point is close to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it can safelyÂ be used in sautÃ©ing and even oven roasting without smoking.
But even if it is safe, someÂ research shows that heating olive oil below the smoke point, especially for longer lengths of time, may diminish some of its natural anti-inflammatory powers. But the effect may be minimal. One study found that whenÂ EVOO samples were heated atÂ 180 degrees for 36 hours (yup 36, not 3-6), they still retained most of their nutritional benefits.
What to do:Â I advise my clients to eat lots of raw veggies, dressed with unheated EVOO-based vinaigrettes, or combined with other healthyÂ plant-based fats like avocado and almonds. However, I donât think itâs necessary to refrain from using EVOO in cooking completely, as long as itâs used at lower temperatures and for a short durations of time, in order to best preserve its beneficial properties.
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The age andÂ treatment of EVOO affect its benefits
Recently, while looking through a client's pantry,Â I asked her how long sheâd had a bottle of EVOO. She replied:Â âMmmm, I donât know, maybe six months?â She had no idea at the time,Â but thatâs tooÂ long to keepÂ an opened bottle.Â When it comes to EVOO, freshness matters,Â a lot. EVOO canÂ start to break down due to air, light, or heat exposure (including sitting on the countertop near aÂ range). When this occurs, it produces unhealthy substances that can trigger artery hardening and cell damage in your body. This kind of breakdown also lowers the smoke point of the oil, which means it'sÂ more likelyÂ to produce harmful substances.
What to do:Â First, look for the date of the harvest (any quality brand will include this on the label),Â and buy the freshest bottle possible (within one year, ideally less). Also, be sure to buy an EVOO bottled withÂ tinted glass, since light can trigger oxidation. Then, whenever you use your oil,Â pour a little out and give it a sniff. A quality oil should smell fruity, while one thatâs going bad may smell stale, or have anÂ aroma of crayonsÂ or glue. Finally, be sure to store your EVOO in a cool, dark space; use it up within six weeks; and never reuse it after itâs been heated. These rules may seem overly-cautious, but trust me, they're well worth the effort to maximize the health perks of your oil.
Meet Cynthia Sass at theÂ HealthÂ Total Wellness Weekend at Canyon RanchÂ AprilÂ 22-24!Â For details, go toÂ Health.com/TotalWellness.
Do you have a question about EVOO? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioningÂ @goodhealthÂ andÂ @CynthiaSass.Â
Cynthia SassÂ is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with masterâs degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen onÂ national TV, sheâs Healthâs contributing nutrition editor, and privately counselsÂ clientsÂ in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her onÂ Facebook,Â TwitterÂ andÂ Pinterest.