Did you know that May is National Mediterranean Diet Month? If I had to pick one “diet” for my patients the Mediterranean diet would be it. There is strong evidence that following the dietary pattern of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea can lower your risk of many chronic diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish and unprocessed grains, and low consumption of meat and meat products (maybe two to three times per month). One of the biggest staples of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil.
Olive oil is rich in the heart healthy type of fats, monunsaturated fats or MUFAs. These types of fatty acids are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and help to reduce the a amount of bad (LDL) cholesterol while helping to boost your good (HDL) cholesterol. In addition to MUFAs, olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These work to lower oxidative stress which is the root of many chronic diseases. And although just 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories and 14 g of fat, observational studies do not show a link between high olive oil consumption and weight gain or obesity. Score one for olive oil! So now that we’ve established how great olive oil is- which one to pick? With all the choices out there nowadays, choosing which olive oil to buy can be a bit overwhelming. A good rule of thumb: go for quality.
The quality of olive oil is based on its acid content. As acid content goes up, quality goes down. The best olive oils come from the first pressing and range from golden yellow to almost bright green in color. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has the lowest acid at less than 3% and is therefore the highest quality. Extra virgin olive oil is also the only olive oil that contains all the beneficial antioxidants and bioactive compounds since it is minimally processed. Unfortunately, there’s some fraud in the olive oil market. There are some olive oils that are labeled as extra-virgin that may actually be diluted with refined oils. Be sure to check the bottle for a label from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group that tests olive oils to see if they measure up to the manufacturer’s claims. The trade group tests olive oils to determine if they are what the labels say they are and not adulterated or a mislabeled product.
Since light and oxygen can effect the quality of EVOO be sure to look so look for containers that contain the sell-by date or harvest date. Keep in mind that olive oil generally has a shelf life of about 12 months so the newer the better (note sell-by or harvest dates are not mandatory so you may have to do a little searching). Also, look for opaque or dark glass containers and choose bottles toward the back of the shelf, where no direct light reaches. Since EVOO is the typically the most expensive I recommend to use it in dishes where you can really appreciate the flavor. A great way to incorporate EVOO into your diet is to drizzle on raw foods such as salad greens, ripe tomatoes or green beans. You can also use it as a base for a homemade salad dressing like the one here. Mangia!