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Olive Oil: How healthy is it anyway? And is the olive oil you are using really olive oil?

I previously shared some thoughts about milk and how many of us may mistakenly consume it in large amounts thinking that it is a healthy food. If you missed that one and are interested in it, please let us know.

Today I would like us to take a look at another food that is rising in popularity because of its reported health benefits: Olive Oil.

Before I delve into whether olive oil is really as healthy as many have made it out to be, think about the two words we are talking about. First Olives and secondly Oil.

Olives are known to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet due to the fact that they have an abundance of a type of compound called polyphenols. Polyphenols are a healthy compound also found in red fruits, onions, leafy vegetables like lettuce, cocoa and spices. Polyphenols are known to decrease heart disease risk factors by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing blood clotting and improving the health of artery linings. They also reduce cancer risk by lowering inflammation and increased cellular growth and act as antioxidants, reducing oxidation and cell damage, which leads to many degenerative diseases. So it is clear that any food rich in these polyphenolic compounds like olives will offer health benefits.

Because diets that used a good amount of olive oil, like the Mediterranean diet, was linked to less risk of heart diseases and other health problems, olive oil shot to prominence. It was thought that it was the olive oil in the diet that led to these effects. And the truth is, yes, olive oil did contribute. Back to this shortly, but now let us look at the second word oil.

Oil is the most calorie dense food in the planet and anything that is oil is 100% fat. Oil carries almost 2 and a half times as many calories as you will find in carbohydrates. 1 teaspoon of oil including olive oil will have 40 calories compared to about 16 calories in a teaspoon of refined sugar.

And anything that is such calorie dense and in the form of oil, will pose a big problem. Several studies have shown that increasing the calorie density of the diet by increasing the fat content increases the total amount of calories people tend to consume. Therefore, consuming a lot of oil of any kind can easily lead to weight gain and obesity, which leads us straight to poor heart health. That’s because weight gain increases insulin resistance in many people and leads to a variety of metabolic changes that promote heart disease, including higher levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.

Back to olive oil. So what we know is that the health benefits of olive oil are 99 percent related to the presence of the phenolic compounds, not the oil itself. And so YES, olive oil has potential to offer health benefits because it should contain some of those compounds.

Olive oil is also a type of fat that is unsaturated (actually a monounsaturated fat), that is the preferred type of fat and that is healthier than other types of fat.

  • It is way much healthier than are saturated or hydrogenated fats like margarine, butter, cheese, palm oil (which are the worst oils and should not be consumed).

  • and significantly healthier than even the polyunsaturated fats like sunflower oil (which are also not healthy but marginally better than saturated fats).

BUT…. Just because olive oil is healthier than other fats, doesn’t make it healthy. This is simply because the largest component of the olive oil or any oil is actually the oil. And oil has the following challenges.

  1. It will give you more calories than most foods and so could contribute to weight gain or sabotage your weight loss efforts.

  2. Any oil will contribute to increased fat deposits in your body which will then increase your risk for health problems like heart disease (the very thing olive oil is trying to prevent) and other inflammatory problems

But if you are going to choose any oil, then olive oil will probably be your best bet.

Let me highlight some important things to consider about olive oil even if it may be the preferred oil.

  1. Much of the olive oil we use may not be as healthy as the oil that people in the Mediterranean diet used because of the following olive oil tends to lose the healthy polyphenolic compounds if not harvested, processed and stored well. And believe me much of the oil that we use may not be healthy at all despite being called olive oil. If olive oil is not handled well it will lose its most healthy benefits. In fact, the reason the Mediterranean diet olive oil was very useful was because most people harvested the olives freshly from old mature trees and processed it naturally and simply and used it almost immediately.

So what must we look out for when buying olive oil

  • First buy only “Extra virgin” olive oil. Extra virgin oil is the oil that is derived from the first pressing of the olives. This version of the oil contains many nutrients (such as polyphenols) that protect it from heat damage.

  • Second look for the words “cold pressed”. Cold pressed means that the manufacturers use very little heat when processing olives to get the oil. Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil provides the strongest possible nutrient value because of low-heat processing, coupled with the oil’s first pressing high phytonutrient content.

  • Do not be swayed by other simple attractive terms like “pure”, “natural” “refined” as they don’t have any meaning and offer no benefit other than to try and hide the fact that they are not processed well.

  • Buy olive oil in a container that protects the oil from light. That should be dark glass or a less favourably in a tin.

  • Look for a harvest date on the label (it should be no more than one-year-old). Freshness is important for quality and nutrition.

  • Olive oil should smell fruity and taste and smell like olives. Those more familiar with it describe high-quality olive oil as "grassy"

  • If possible also look for Unfiltered oil. Unfiltered olive oil will appear to be cloudy because it contains naturally occurring elements like antioxidants and buffer acids which protect against oxidative damage.

  1. Storage

The way you store olive oil is important because heat and other factors can trigger oxidation and other problems. Always store olive oil in a dark, cool place. Keep it sealed tight and out of direct sunlight or away from other heat sources like near the stove.

  1. Duration of use. Use olive oil within one to two months once you open it for optimal health benefits. Research shows quality and health benefits decline after two months, even among properly stored olive oils.

  2. Smoke point

The smoke point of oil is the temperature at which smoke will be produced when heated. When smoke is produced, the oil loses its potential health benefits. Olive oil unfortunately has one of the lower smoke points and so should not be used at temperatures that are too high. If smoke is produced, reduce the heat or consider another oil.

What are the alternatives to olive oil?

In Uganda, many of us that cannot afford olive oil tend to use sunflower or corn oil. I honestly think that neither of these is a good alternative. They are both polyunsaturated or saturated and sunflower oil has an even lower smoke point than olive oil. These 2 oils should never be considered as a healthy alternative and in my opinion should not be used.

What about palm oil? This one in my opinion is one of the least favourable plant oils and even much worse than sunflower and corn oil and please do not expose you and your children’s blood vessels to this dangerous oil.

The best alternatives to olive oil in my opinion are

  • Avocado oil

  • Extra virgin coconut oil or maybe

  • Canola and grapeseed oil

The truth is that these better alternatives may not be easier to come by.

As I conclude, I would like to state that anything that comes as oil, should be avoided because I don’t consider any oil to be a healthy food. Oils that contain healthy components, like olive oil does are better than those that do not or that are saturated, but we must be careful not to consider them healthy foods. If what we are looking for are the healthy polyphenolic compounds and other healthy ingredients found in olive oil, then we should consider unrefined natural plants that also contain these compounds with less fat and less calories. If you were to get the same amount of polyphenols from fresh green leafy lettuce as from olive oil, you were also get 10 times less calories, add less weight and reduce your risk for cancer, diabetes and many more problems.

I strongly recommend against using oil of any kind because we don’t need that kind of oil in our bodies. And if you are worried that you shall not get enough fats in the diet, worry not because God blessed the world with lots of healthy unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, avocado and fresh fish.

But if you do use oil, let it be in moderation and let it be as a condiment to make your food more pleasant to consume. In these cases, I recommend that you opt for the healthier ones of which olive oil ranks very highly.

For maximum nutrition, quality and flavour, ideally, the olive oil you buy should not be more than one-year-old. It should say "extra virgin" and preferably “cold pressed”. It should be stored in a cool dark environment and once opened should be used within a 2-month period without too much exposure to air.

Once again I hope this article will serve to provide you with a different perspective to olive oil and oil in general. I urge you to read further and enhance your knowledge.

Please do share this information if you feel it has been useful to you.

I would like to hear from you, what your thoughts are about this.

I wish you great health and happiness.

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