Yes You Can!…Cook With Olive Oil.

The question

Sitting at a Café, in Philadelphia, I asked a colleague health coach which cooking oil she used most.

Coconut oil; I use olive oil only for salads and cold preparations. Olive oil isn’t meant for cooking anyway. It’s not healthy.”

That got me thinking. I had my doubts. Having lived in Spain for 6 years, I’ve seen olive oil used for cooking in pretty much every kitchen. Whereas the rate of cardiovascular disease had risen dramatically on average, while I lived there, people who stuck to the Mediterranean Diet were among the healthiest in the Western World. This was common knowledge among health care professionals out there. [1]This was years before PREDIMED, one of the best designed and implemented nutrition studies, ever.

Was this opinion about olive oil widely shared? Had I missed something recently? I was itching to know more; and that meant…study time!

To my surprise, the opinion wanting that olive oil isn’t suited for cooking is rather widespread. My experience and prior knowledge told me otherwise. But my opinion, however informed, is just that. What does the evidence say?

The skinny on a wonderful fat

Healthy Vegetable Salad with Olive oil dressing. Pouring Olive o

Turns out olive oil has an excellent reputation of being very healthy. This is in no small part, due to the abundance of oleic acid, which makes up to 70% of all the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.

Oleic acid decreases C-reactive protein an important marker of  inflammation. Oleic acid appears to act as an anticancer agent by suppressing genes involved in breast cancer. Another EVOO fat, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) plays a similar role. [2]Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R. Effect of gamma-linolenic acid on the transcriptional activity of the Her-2/neu (erbB-2) oncogene. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Nov 2;97(21):1611-5.

Olive oil is loaded with powerful antioxidants helpful in lowering blood pressure, increase HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, lower oxidized LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol,  killing cancer cells, reducing pain and acting as anti-aging nutraceuticals. [3]Nutraceutical: “Food, or parts of food, that provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease.” By this definition, extra-virgin olive oil most certainly fits the bill

So yes! This impressive array of benefits ranks olive oil among the very best for our health. Consensus gravitates toward extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) as the best choice among all the olive oils.

Buyer beware!

It is a sad fact however, that fraud in the olive oil industry is widespread.  Thus, make sure you buy your extra-virgin olive oil from a reputable vendor. Warning: Some big names are among the offenders…

Turning on the heat!

Stove FlameCanva

Before delving into the specifics of olive oil, it will be very helpful to lay out the characteristics of a good cooking oil. This way, the next time you’re wondering about a specific oil other than EVOO, you will have the tools to make an informed decision.

What makes a good cooking oil?

Temperature affects the availability of nutrients in our food. Cooked carrots yield more nutrients than raw carrots. On the other hand, cooked lettuce will lose nutrients. Frozen blueberries hold more antioxidants per unit of weight than blueberries freshly harvested.

Oils and fats will suffer chemical damage when heated. Polyunsaturated fats are especially susceptible. Formation of free radicals and reactive oxidative species are particularly harmful to human health; when chronically inhaled, oil smoke from peanut oil, soybean and rapeseed oil increase chances of lung cancer. Ingestion of damaged rapeseed oil [4]Article in Spanish — reference to the 1,000 deaths apparently caused by adulterated rapeseed oil in Spain. This event is known as “El escándalo del aceite de colza” was at the roots of a mass tragedy 30 years ago.

Now, we can reap the benefits of cooking with oil while avoiding associated health hazards. To do this, we need to consider the chemical structure of oil, (the less polyunsaturated fats the better) its smoke point (higher the better) and the source. [5]Vegetable oils and oils with trans fats are notoriously unhealthy…avoid them!

And Olive Oil?

Olive oil has only 11% of polyunsaturated fats and 75% of monounsaturated fats. This makes it a good candidate for cooking. Extra virgin olive oil smoke point  is 375F; virgin olive oil scores 420F. These smoke points are not among the highest, but olive oil is very resistant to the effects of high heat. Even continuous heating at 350F for 36 hours does not markedly alter olive oil properties and chemical composition. Thanks to the presence of antioxidants polyphenols and tocopherols, which act to protect the oil from oxidation, olive oil show remarkable stability when heated for cooking.

Bottom line

Olive oil is a very healthy and versatile oil, both for cold meals and cooking. Such qualities makes it very attractive to health conscious people…and also to scam artists and fraudsters. Thankfully, it is possible to find quality oils at reasonable prices. Given the numerous health benefits (and the awesome taste!) of true, unadulterated extra-virgin olive oil, it is an easy choice that belong in the pantry…and the skillet.

References & Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This was years before PREDIMED, one of the best designed and implemented nutrition studies, ever.
2. Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R. Effect of gamma-linolenic acid on the transcriptional activity of the Her-2/neu (erbB-2) oncogene. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Nov 2;97(21):1611-5.
3. Nutraceutical: “Food, or parts of food, that provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease.” By this definition, extra-virgin olive oil most certainly fits the bill
4. Article in Spanish — reference to the 1,000 deaths apparently caused by adulterated rapeseed oil in Spain. This event is known as “El escándalo del aceite de colza”
5. Vegetable oils and oils with trans fats are notoriously unhealthy…avoid them!

2 Comments

  1. susiefruitcake Thursday, 5 March, 2015
    • Francois Friday, 6 March, 2015