Olive Oil: Start Now!

There plenty of olive oil making the rounds everyplace we see. The fitness pundits say it’s healthy. Manufacturing companies quote the fitness pundits and say it’s healthy. Cooks and bloggers quote the fitness pundits and the manufacturing companies and use it in every other dish. Chefs and gourmets can’t get enough of this greenish-yellow, mildly viscous fluid and pair with everything possible. Traditional Indian cooks don’t like the flavors that result from using olive oil in any sort of Indian food. So, what’s the deal?

Olio Sasso
Olio Sasso

The first olive oil I encountered was a green tin, at the age of six or seven, that read ‘Olio Sasso’ and was used as a weekly massage oil for us kids, usually washed off with ‘Chandrika’ soap after perhaps a thorough rubbing down with chickpea flour. I don’t believe any of us ever thought of it as something edible. It didn’t smell edible anyway; quite similar to north Indians who think of coconut oil as something that’s applied to the scalp, never to a frying pan. It was to be more than two decades before olive oil introduced itself to me as edible.

Interestingly, while all of us are aware of the Mediterranean penchant for olive oil and are quite aware of Italy and Spain’s high levels of olive oil usage, did you know Greece has the highest consumption of olive oil per person? Figures, when you consider the olive tree is said to have originated in Greece. Having said that, Spain does produce nearly 44% of the world’s olive oil.

Olive oil is assumed to have been first extracted a little before 4000 B.C., and by some sources, even 4500 B.C. Methods of extraction were crude and included techniques such as placing olive pulp into tanks, waiting for the oil to rise to the top and then draining the water from the bottom. It’s ancient uses included ritualistic, medicinal, cosmetic and household uses such as soap making, lamp fuel and cooking.

Benefit, Organic EVOO
Benefit, Organic EVOO

Olive oil production begins with turning olives into paste, which is slowly churned to increase the concentration of small droplets of the oil within. At this point, older techniques use pressure to separate the oil from the paste while modern technology allows us to use centrifugal forces to accomplish the same task in a more effective manner. Oil is extracted from olive paste in multiple stages and using multiple techniques, each one causing the resultant oil to be graded differently – virgin, refined and pomace. The highest grade, Virgin olive oil refers to oil that has been extracted only using physical means and nothing else. The next, refined means the oil has been treated chemically to remove strong tastes and acidity. The last and lowest grade indicates oil that has been extracted from the paste using chemical and heat treatments.

Why is olive oil healthy?
Olive oil is considered healthy because of numerous positive claims against diseases of different sorts.

  • Osteoporosis – due to the improvement of bone mineralization
  • Obesity – no facts, just empiric studies that show improvement in levels of obesity
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis – no facts again, only studies that show people who consume olive oil are less likely to develop this
  • Diabetes – helps lower low-density lipoproteins, improves sugar control and increases insulin sensitivity
  • Blood Pressure – no facts, studies that show a decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • Heart Disease – Helps lower blood cholesterol
  • Cancer – no facts, studies that indicate it is helpful against breast cancer and other malignant tumors
  • Oxidant Stress – contains anti oxidants such as Vitamin E, carotenoids and phenolic compounds

Most authorities suggest the consumption of two spoons of extra virgin olive oil a day as a safeguard to health. Interestingly, olive oil is said to be a great, natural free radical inhibitor, making it a good addition to your skincare regime. Its other cosmetic uses are in exfoliation (when combined with sea salt), nail and cuticle moisturisation and an aid in the removal of eye make up.

Cooking with Olive Oil
Extra Virgin is the olive oil grade that’s best for us from a health point of view, say most experts. The grouse that most of us have with extra virgin, is that per popular wisdom, one can only use it for salads and the like, where there’s no heating involved. This isn’t entirely true. Smoke point for extra virgin olive oil, the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke, and also the point at which most health giving compounds in olive oil, like polyphenols, begin to literally go up in smoke, is around 410 degrees Fahrenheit. Given that most cooking can be done between 250 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit, one can indeed cook with extra virgin olive oil. Additionally, a high quality extra virgin olive oil can have an even higher smoke point.

Benefit Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Among the many olive oils on the market, we chose to work with a relatively new entrant for this article – Benefit, which makes the same claims as most other brands, with the addition of the ‘Organic’ tag, which too is a current rage.  We tried two varieties of Benefit Olive Oil – the extra virgin and the refined oils. The refined, an import from Spain, was as expected, smooth, nearly entirely odorless and mildly buttery. It was also said to contain more than 75% monounsaturated fatty acids, which if accurate, should help regulate cholesterol levels. The extra virgin, imported from Tunisia, was however a bit of a surprise. While the brand claims the oil has a mild taste and aroma which is preferred by Indian consumers and we were a little trepidatious during the initial tasting, it turned out to be quite alright as shown in our sensory evaluation below:

  • Aroma: fruity, with a mild apple-banana fragrance and hints of freshly-mown grass.
  • Taste: Very mildly peppery with a hint of bitterness similar to that of not-yet-ripe fruit
  • Aftertaste: The only minus point for me; it didn’t linger too long, which makes it better for use as a component than as a key flavor ingredient.

I used the refined oil in traditional cooking and found the results to be identical to other refined oils. The extra virgin variant was used in salads, as a topping for hot, cooked foods and even to cook foods in. As claimed by the brand it’s smoke point was about 190 degrees Celsius, which made it perfectly suitable for most cooking, except where higher temperatures were required, at which point, it did lose character and undoubtedly some of its health benefits too. Surprisingly, the brand’s Virgin variant is at nearly similar aroma and taste levels as the Extra Virgin variants of some other brands I have tasted and those I use at home. Guess who’s switching? More information about Benefit Olive Oils can be found from their website here.

Given the spate of artificial products we consume today and the loss of health in it’s many dimensions most of us are rapidly becoming aware of, including a simple, easy to integrate component like olive oil into our lives and daily routines isn’t much work.

Ed: Cover pic is of an advertisement of Sasso oil from the 1950s.

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.