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Homer called it "liquid gold." Olive oil has been more than mere food to us Mediterraneans: it's our way of life. The olive tree, symbol of abundance, glory and peace, gave its leafy branches to crown the victorious in both friendly games and bloody war. Olive crowns and olive branches, ancient emblems of benediction and purifiation, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures but it is only in recent times that modern scientific research has proven over and over what the peasant wisdom knew a long time ago: its wonderful taste and health properties.

                                                     

One tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat, but the fat is mostly monounsaturated and has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol levels. It is no wonder that Mediterranean countries where olive oil is consumed extensively such as Greece, France, Italy and Spain, there is a low incidence of cardiovascular diseases. It also protects the body's digestive tract.

In this diary I explain the merits of olive oil as a healthy choice, some history, what to buy and some useful links. Next week, in part two, the recipes will all feature olive oil in all of its glory. If you have a request for a particular recipe utilizing olive oil, post it in the comments. As old Caesar once said, alea jacta est!

                                         

Why is olive oil so good? It contains monounsaturated fat, a healthier type of fat that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood. In sheer contrast, saturated and trans fats — such as butter, animal fats, tropical oils and partially hydrogenated oils — increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total and LDL cholesterol levels.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consuming about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day may reduce your risk of heart disease. You can get the most benefit by substituting olive oil for saturated fats rather than just adding more olive oil to your diet.

Now that California produces some exceptional olive oils, the US consumption is at an all time high, but I'd wage that some of you are still confused about the differences between regular or pure olive oil on the one hand, and on the other, olive oil that is classified as either virgin, extra virgin, or cold pressed. Here's a quick rundown, compliments of the folks from All About Olive Oil:

Regular or Pure Olive Oil
This olive oil is of lower quality and usually the least expensive. Regular or pure olive oil has undergone a chemical process whereby it has been refined and filtered to neutralize both undesirable strong tastes and acid content.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin means the olive oil was produced without any chemical additives, so it contains no refined oil. It has an acidity that’s less than 2%, so it tastes better. Basically, virgin olive oil is the result of olive press with no (or very little) further manipulation or processing, hence the term “virgin”.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
It is very high quality olive oil since it comes from the first press only. This allows it to acquire perfect flavour, aroma, and balanced acidity. This olive oil is less processed than Virgin olive oil and is very delicate in flavour. It’s perfect for dipping bread, salad dressings, marinades, and for dressing rough food.
Cold Pressed Olive Oil
Cold pressed olive oil can be considered premium olive oil. It is produced following a special process that fully preserves the delicate flavour. Cold pressed means that this oil is only the result of the first press where the olive paste is gently warmed to reach room temperature to avoid loosing taste. Pressing is also done in winter or in general in colder environments to fully retain the flavour. Conversely, in the production process of non cold pressed olive oil, the olive paste is often pressed the second time using hot water and steam to extract the last drop, the heat during the second pressing took away the delicate flavours.

                                           

To summarize the info above, cold pressed olive oil is produced by pressing the olive paste. It is a very slow process in which olive oil is extracted from olives at room temperature. The term cold-pressing refers to the fact that the oil is extracted without heating the paste, furthering insuring the purity of the oil. In ancient times, the olives were mashed into a paste with a simple mortar and pestle. This principle was expanded upon until the stone mortars were large enough to require either people or pack animals to operate them. In the modern process, the milled olives travel from the mill into vats in which slowly turning blades mash the olives into a homogenized paste. Unfortunately, cold pressed olive oil is an unregulated label description and one has to really look hard on the bottles label to find the "cold pressing" tag. But that's the very best kind, and if you can afford it, the benefits will be obvious.

Before you set off to purchase your bottle of olive oil, just remember that not all oils are created equal. First, give a wide berth to Pomace oil which is the name given to the ground flesh and pits after pressing. Pomace oil is made by refining what's left of olive oil pressings. Although fit for consumption, it has no real taste and it's used primarily for deep frying. There are some fairly poor bottled olive oils on the market and some that are downright shameful, the products of various oil scams. Scams? You betcha. Last year Italian police raided several farms and arrested some 23 people. Another incursion six weeks later netted a further 40 arrests. Buyer beware indeed.

Police had been watching the plants for two years, and the suspects are accused of adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soya bean oil, and selling it as extra virgin olive oil in Italy and abroad. TV news footage showed police scientists demonstrating the process and the cheap oil turning a darker, greenish colour, like that of the traditional extra virgin olive oil.

                                                         

While you read this diary, grab a piece of bread and dip it into a saucer filled with olive oil. Sprinkle a little sea salt and some cracked black pepper. Italians and southern French are keen on this snack, it stops the hunger, it's healthy and it's affordable.

Olive culture has ancient roots. Fossilized remains of the olive tree's ancestor were found near Livorno, in Italy, dating from twenty million years ago, although actual cultivation probably did not occur in that area until the fifth century B.C. Olives were first  cultivated in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, in the region known as the "fertile crescent," and moved westwards over the millennia.

Beginning in 5000 B.C. And until 1400 B.C., olive cultivation spread from Crete to Syria, Palestine, and Israel; commercial networking and application of new knowledge then brought it to Southern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Until 1500 B.C., Greece—particularly Mycenae—was the area most heavily cultivated. with the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive culture reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa in the eighth century B.C., then spread into Southern France. Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin under Roman rule. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had "excellent olive oil at reasonable prices" by the first century A.C, "the best in the Mediterranean," he maintained.

Apart from the delightful taste of olive oil, it is laced with vitamin E, a most powerful antioxidant. Additionally olive oil is thought to have a protective effect against maladies in which free radicals activity is implicated, among them cancer, arthritis and cardiovascular disease. My great grandmother insisted that it also worked against premature senility (she lived to a very old age). Other research gleaned from the European Union website has shown that the bile-promoting effect of olive oil is both more intense and longer lasting than any other fats. Look at it this way: I have read recently on the FDA site that on digestibility rating of 100, olive oil scored full marks. Sunflower oil scored 83, groundnut oil did 81 while corn oil lagged behind at 36. Because of the olive oil efficiency in being absorbed helps and promotes intestinal peristalsis it is a friend of the liverish, the dyspeptic and the ulcer sufferers.

                                            Health Nutrition Benefits of Olives/ Olive Oil:

The mono-saturated fats present in olives/olive oil, when combined with the antioxidant protection offered by vitamin E, lower the risk of damage and inflammation.

Olive/olive oil contains active phytonutrient compounds, including polyphenols and flavonoids, which have been found to have significant anti-inflammatory properties.

The vitamin E present in olives/olive oil has been known to offer cellular protection against free radicals present in the body.
Olives/olive oil prevents the oxidation of cholesterol in the body and thus, helps reduce the risk of having heart attack or stroke.

Since they help the body in neutralizing free radicals, the nutrients in olives/olive oil also lead to prevention of colon cancer.

Olives/olive oil are said to be effective in reducing the frequency and/or intensity of hot flashes in women, who are going through menopause.

Regular consumption of olive oil has been associated with decrease in systolic (maximum) as well as diastolic (minimum) blood pressure.

Those who consume olives/olive oil are at a lesser risk of developing diabetes at later stages in life.

Good quality olive/olive oil contains a natural chemical that acts like a painkiller.

Olive/olive oil has been known to be beneficial for people suffering from the following ailments:

                                                                 Asthma
                                                            Osteoarthritis
                                                       Rheumatoid Arthritis
                                                          Arteriosclerosis  
                                                         Stomach Problems
                                                           Constipation
                                                               Diabetes

Olive oil is also known to combat breast cancer, take a look at this website. If you'd like to know more about olive oil nutrients, try this site.

Originally posted to Patric Juillet on Fri Nov 20, 2009 at 01:50 PM PST.

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