Olive oil’s health benefits? It’s a slippery question
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Processing: The less processing the better. “Extra virgin” olive oil, which is cold-pressed only once, has the highest polyphenol levels. Two presses (“virgin” olive oil), reduces polyphenol content further, and oil with three extractions contains only about half the value of “virgin” olive oil. Highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.
Storage: Any exposure of the harvested olives or the oil to heat, light or air will reduce polyphenol content. (If you’re using extreme heat in cooking, you’ll most likely lose the polyphenols anyway, so you might as well use canola oil, which contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.)
Marcia Horting and her husband, Marc Marzullo, who visit Italy regularly, are on a constant quest for great olive oil. “We look for oils produced by single vineyards, co-ops in small towns like Volpaia, or high-quality Tuscan producers that are grassy and spicy,” says Horting, a consultant in Gaithersburg. She has noticed that in the bigger stores in Paris and Rome serving tourists, “older olive oils are sold at the same prices as the more recent harvest.”
Luckily, you no longer have to travel to Italy for high-quality extra virgin olive oil, as they are now being produced in the United States. They’re more likely to be fresh — and with a price you can afford. California is the leader of the olive oil-producing states, but Texas, Oregon, Arizona and Georgia are producing a small amount.
It’s tricky knowing the olive oil you’re buying is high-quality, fresh extra virgin olive oil. In most U.S. stores, I have found olive oil with harvest dates on perhaps one out of 20 bottles. Some have “sell-by” dates, which are usually two years after harvest, though there are no standards for a sell-by date, so there is no guarantee how old your olive oil is unless there is a harvest date. Look for a harvest date within the past year.
Even if it has a harvest date, you still won’t know whether it has been harvested and handled to maximize polyphenol content.
The way I handle this is by going to a specialty Italian shop or somewhere that I know sells California or Texas olive oil, making sure the container is opaque and has a harvest date, keeping it in a cool, dark cabinet at home, and using it up quickly. I save expensive olive oil for drizzling on salads and use canola oil for cooking, especially with high heat.
The more consumers demand harvest dates and proper handling, the more these products will become available.
What to look for
Advice from Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC-Davis Olive Center:
- Look for a harvest date on the label. Freshness is important for quality and nutrition. Some retailers are becoming savvier about this.
- Color is not an indicator of freshness. Some people think a strong green tint means better quality, but some olive varieties are just greener than others. Some high-quality olive oils are a golden color.
- Buy olive oil in a container that protects the oil from light. That could be dark glass or a tin.
- People need to taste truly fresh oil. I believe most people are used to oil that is not fresh, and that’s what they think it should taste like. There’s a high-quality product available at the same price. Extra virgin olive oil has a special flavor and freshness. Once people taste fresh extra virgin olive oil, they’ll want to continue choosing it.
- Olive oil should smell fruity and taste like olives. Some describe high-quality olive oil as “grassy” or “peppery.”
For maximum nutrition, quality and flavor, ideally, the olive oil you buy should not be more than one year old. It should say “extra virgin.” It should be harvested carefully, processed quickly and minimally, stored in a cool dark environment, and opened and used without too much exposure to air.
Katherine Tallmadge is a registered dietitian and author of “Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.” washingtonpost.com