29 Sep

Choosing the healthiest, tastiest Olive Oil

There are lots of good reasons to stock your pantry with olive oil. Long the most commonly used oil in the Mediterranean (as much as 25 to 40 percent of calories consumed in this region come from olive oil), extra-virgin olive oil’s healthful properties come from rich levels of monounsaturated fat, which promote “good” cholesterol, as well as abundant polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.

But when confronted with dozens of olive oils at the grocery store, labelled with terms like “cold-pressed” and “unfiltered” on their labels, what’s a quality-minded, health-conscious grocery shopper to do?

Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils are processed by crushing olives into a mash, which is pressed to extract the oil (this is called the first press) without the use of heat (called cold pressing). Extra-virgin oils are of higher quality, as the olives used to make them are processed within 24 hours of picking — the longer olives go between picking and processing, the higher their free fatty acid content (extra-virgin olive oil can have up to 0.8 percent, virgin oils two percent). Extra-virgin oils also have more polyphenols than virgin oils.

Oils can be filtered, or not. Unfiltered oils have tiny particles of olive flesh in them, which reduces shelf life, and may appear cloudy if those particles haven’t settled at the bottom of the bottle.

Pure olive oil or simply olive oil are below extra-virgin and virgin standards and are heavily processed to remove off flavours and aromas. Though the oil still is a source of monounsaturated fat, its been stripped of healthful polyphenols.

“Light,” “lite” and “extra-light” are purely marketing terms used on highly refined oils that refer to mild flavour and/or colour, not reduced calorie content.

“Product of Italy” means the oil was processed in Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown there.

You can find oils that use solely Italian olives — or olives from Greece or California. Often made from olives from single estates or particular growing regions, these high-quality artisan oils have more distinct flavours — and are more expensive.

Light exposure causes the oil to become rancid and lose its healthful properties — buy extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles and metal cans and store it in a cool, dark place. Bottling and/or expiration dates provide guidance on how long the oil will keep.

If you don’t use extra-virgin olive oil regularly, buy small bottles — polyphenols and flavour can diminish as the oil is exposed to air.

The colour of the oil doesn’t indicate its quality — rather the variety and ripeness of olives used to make it. You might have heard that you can’t cook with extra-virgin olive oil because it breaks down when heated, creating harmful substances and destroying its beneficial properties. But all oils break down when they are heated to their smoke point or reheated repeatedly.

However, an oil’s smoke point is really a temperature range (olive oil’s is between 365-420F), not an absolute number because many factors affect the chemical properties of oil. You can safely and healthfully cook with any oil by not heating it until it’s smoking – to get your oil hot enough to cook with, just heat it until it shimmers.

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