The expensive olive oil in your kitchen cabinet is likely not as fresh, nutritious or high in quality as you assume it might be.
Does that mean you won’t receive the expected health benefits when using olive oil purchased from America’s grocery shelves? Possibly.
This issue first came to my attention at a Mediterranean Diet Conference I attended in Florence, Italy, co-sponsored by New York University’s Department of Dietetics and the James Beard Foundation.
Olive oil gets worse with age
You feel good about using olive oil, right? You know it’s good for you, tasty and easy to use. Still, to get the most benefits — and the best bang for your buck — there’s more you should know. [4 Tips for Finding Time for Healthy Cooking]
“The health benefits of olive oil are 99 percent related to the presence of the phenolic compounds, not the oil itself,” said Nasir Malik, research plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agricultural Research Service.
Malik is referring to the polyphenols in olive oil, nutrients also found in wine, tea, cocoa and many fruits and vegetables that have been discovered over the past decade to be the substances responsible for the bulk of olive oil’s health benefits, without which “you might as well use canola oil,” Malik said.
And when tested, polyphenols were surprisingly low in most commercially available olive oils, according to a recently published study conducted by the Agricultural Research Service, co-authored by Malik.
They also don’t live up to international or USDA quality standards, according to studies conducted by the University of California at Davis (UC-Davis) Olive Center.
The good stuff
Polyphenols decrease heart disease risk factors by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing blood clotting and improving the health of artery linings.
Researchers have discovered genes that, when activated, either increase or reduce your chances for metabolic syndrome, the name for a group of risk factors (high blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose) that together increase the risk for heart disease, America’s No. 1 killer.
Fresh, high-polyphenol olive oil affects the expression of those genes in a positive way, reducing your risk for metabolic syndrome and heart disease. But, low-polyphenol olive oil does not have the same effects,a recent study found.
Polyphenols also reduce cancer risk by lowering inflammation and cellular proliferation. They act as antioxidants, reducing oxidation and cell damage, which leads to many degenerative diseases. They even reduce microbial activity and infections.
Those biological benefits explain, in part, whythe Mediterranean diet, high in olive oil, has been linked with superior health. But there is an advantage even the poorest of the poor in Mediterranean countries have enjoyed since at least 4000 B.C.:freshly harvested olive oil. That’s because olives were growing on trees in people’s backyards; it was plentiful and cheap. But its freshness had been taken for granted. [The Origins of the Olive Tree Revealed]
Studies show that as days, weeks and months go by after harvest, the polyphenol content and health benefits of the oil diminish.
“Think of olive oil as olive juice with a maximum two-year shelf life,” said Selina Wang, research director at the UC-Davis Olive Center.
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