02 Mar

You’ll be hard ‘pressed’ to find a healthier food

By Michael Devlin,
The Ulster Herald
Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recommended the juices of fresh olives as a cure for mental illness and poultices of macerated olives for ulcers. And just last year Danish scientists found that adding plenty of olive oil to a diet could help protect against cell damage that can lead to cancer. A study of 182 European men found those who had 25 ml of olive oil per day had reduced levels of a substance which indicates cell damage.


By Michael Devlin,

A friend chastised me last week for my overzealous use of olive oil. I was adding it to bruschetta at the time and he quipped, “Too much of that stuff’ll kill you. It’s oil, that means it’s fat. Are you stupid?”

How wrong can one person be?

Sound lad that he is, this friend of mine suffers acutely from the singular syndrome of, thinking-he-already-knows-everything-there-is-to-know. And most infuriatingly of all, when I told him that he was mistaken and olive oil is a great addition to any diet, full as it is, with antioxidants and general goodness, he still didn’t believe me. Had I known it at the time, I would have quoted Frank Sacks from the Harvard School of public health who said, “An olive-oil-rich diet is more effective than a low-fat diet in controlling and treating obesity. Moreover, it leads to longer-lasting weight loss and it is easier to keep to because it tastes good.”

Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recommended the juices of fresh olives as a cure for mental illness and poultices of macerated olives for ulcers. And just last year Danish scientists found that adding plenty of olive oil to a diet could help protect against cell damage that can lead to cancer. A study of 182 European men found those who had 25 ml of olive oil per day had reduced levels of a substance which indicates cell damage.

He probably still doesn’t believe me. Though this is probably something else he doesn’t know.

Currently, three quarters of global Olive oil production comes from the European Union with Spain, Italy and Greece leading the way by a variety of country miles. It is estimated that there are about 750 million cultivated olive trees world wide but in olive producing countries, it is generally believed that the local produce is the best. This may come down to the fact that the fresher the oil, the finer it tastes. Thus the further the oil has to travel, the worse it will be. Unlike fine wines, olive oil does not get better with age – quite the opposite in fact. Greece, for example devotes around 60 per cent of its cultivated land to producing olives. Unsurprisingly enough, the Greeks also lead the way when it comes to guzzling nature’s oily bounty – around 26 litres of the stuff a year.

Historically, olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC and fashioned into oil by 4500 BC in present-day Israel. People have been mad about it ever since. Apart from food, olive oil has been used for medicines, as a fuel in oil lamps, to make soaps, and even as a sexual lubricant. And get this, the significance and antiquity of olive oil can be seen in the fact that the word “oil” actually derives from the same root as “olive”.

Even though the maxim, ‘The most expensive and therefore the best’ doesn’t apply to everything in life, as far as olive oil goes, you can’t go too far wrong if you stick to it. Only extra-virgin olive oil will do, unless you’re planning on deep frying with it. When you see ‘cold pressed’ on a label, this means nothing, all olive oil is cold pressed these days. Apparently, the best olive oil in the world comes from Sicily, although I am as yet to taste any of this amber nectar – much to my reoccurring regret. One other thing to watch out for when buying olive oil from Italy. It may say on the label ‘Imported from Italy’. Have a closer look because this could mean that it was cultivated somewhere else, transported to Italy, repackaged and then distributed. At the end of the day, when you do get a good olive oil, you’ll know it. Drizzle over foccacia for maximum effect – but don’t worry, it’s good for you.

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