Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is often called ‘liquid gold’, and has been touted as the best oil for our health, but is it really? Olive oil is the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet and is eaten daily.
Olive oil is the liquid fat that is extracted from whole olives using a press. It has many uses including cooking and frying, as an ingredient in recipes such as bread and salad dressing, and in commercial products such as soaps, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Olive oil composition will vary according to the cultivar, altitude,time of harvest and the processing/ extraction process. Olive oil is made up of about 85% unsaturated fats (monounsaturated fats – Oleic acid 70%, Palmitoleic acid 0.3-0.5% and polyunsaturated fats, linoleic acid and ɑ-linolenic acid) and 15% saturated fats (palmitic acid and stearic acid).
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the highest grade, as it is derived by cold mechanical extraction without the use of solvents or refining methods. Virgin olive oil is a lesser grade of oil with a higher acidity and may have some sensory defects. Refined olive oil is virgin oil that has been refined using charcoal and other chemical or physical filters. Once the mechanical oil extraction of olive oil is complete, approximately 5-8% of the oil remains in the pulp, which then is extracted with the help of solvents, and known as olive pomace oil. It is fit for consumption but cannot be sold labelled as olive oil. Olive oils sold as EVOO or virgin olive oil must not contain any refined oil.
One of the reasons EVOO has many health benefits is that it is abundant in phenolic compounds (potent anti-oxidants), including Vitamins E and A (1). Evidence from the EPIC cohorts (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer) have shown an inverse relationship with olive oil consumption and coronary heart disease mortality and incidence (2,3). Also a three-city study has shown an inverse relationship between olive oil consumption and stroke risk in women. And the PREDIMED (Prevention by Mediterranean Diet) study has shown that consumption of EVOO within the frame of the mediterranean diet reduces the risk of atrial fibrillation in older high risk cardio vascular disease individuals(4-6). Other health benefits monounsaturated fats can include improvements in lipid profile, glucose metabolism, blood pressure control, endothelial function and possibly some favorable effects on obesity and reduction in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease (7).
Olive trees grow well in the Mediterranean region,particularly in Spain, Italy and Greece. The 2017/2018 (tentative) statistics produced by the International Olive Council rated Spain as the highest olive oil producing country with over 1251.3 (1,000) tonnes, Italy 428.9 (000) tonnes and Greece 346 (000) tonnes (8). Turkey is the largest olive oil producer outside the European Union. Annual consumption per capita of olive oil is about 23.7 kg in Greece, 13.6 kg in Spain and 12.3 kg in Italy!
Olive oil is produced by grinding the olives and extracting the oil by either mechanical or chemical means. Olives are ground into a paste using large millstones (old way) or steel drums (modern method) and then the paste is left to oxidise for a while to extract the oil and water. This mixture is then placed into a centrifuge to separate the oil and water. The paste leftover can be further processed with solvents to extract the pomace oil. The term cold extraction refers to the processing being done in temperatures less than 25 degrees Celsius, as above this the oil quality may degenerate. The olive ripeness is important, as under-ripe olives are bitter and over ripe olives can be rancid.
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