Health beneficial olive oil could be the state’s next best drought-resistant crop
A table-top staple as ubiquitous in Italy as ketchup, mustard and butter in the United States, Italians love their olive oil so much that some use it in their babies’ first bath.
But olive oil is also extremely healthy when used in the more traditional culinary sense. It’s high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which can help lower total cholesterol, bad (LDL) cholesterol and blood pressure, particularly if they replace saturated or trans fats in the diet. They can even help normalize insulin and blood sugar levels, which, when out of whack, can lead to type 2 diabetes.
The other main component of olive oil that makes it so healthy is the presence of polyphenols. These molecules are renowned for their antioxidant capabilities, and are also found in high amounts in other superfoods, like blueberries, kale and green tea. Oleocanthal, a type of polyphenol found in high levels in olive oil, has the incredible ability to significantly lower inflammation throughout the body—which is where the scope of olive oil’s health benefits really come into full view. Inflammation is a major driving force behind almost every health condition from heart disease to cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, skin conditions, digestive conditions, and almost everything in between.
But not all olive oil is created equal, and the often poorly regulated industry is rife with mislabeled, depreciated products.
“The adulteration of olive oil is taking a bad batch of olive oil and putting it with a good batch of olive oil, and just selling it as all extra-virgin quality,” says local olive oil expert Susan Pappas, owner of The True Olive Connection in Santa Cruz and Aptos. One disadvantage is that the polyphenols can be almost nonexistent in a poor-quality oil.
So what is the best way to tell if the olive oil you’re eating is high quality? “Taste and smell,” says Pappas. “The most important thing that I teach my clients is that [high quality olive oil] should always have a very fresh smell to your nose. Your nose will distinguish quality before your palate. So if you can smell anything fresh—green apples, or green grass—the chlorophyll is very distinct in a fresh smelling grass, and most olives are pressed at a highly green state to keep its high nutrient value. And in order to obtain that, that chlorophyll comes out very strong to the nose.”
Once you’ve taken a big whiff of your oil, what should the experience of a good olive oil be like on your tongue? “A peppery finish and a little tickle in the back of your throat,” says Pappas. This sensation is indicative of a high amount of polyphenols, says Pappas. “After you’ve finished the olive oil, if your palate has an oily finish, then that olive oil is spent,” says Pappas. “Not necessarily rancid, but spent,” says Pappas.
Color will vary from oil to oil, and isn’t indicative of quality but of the variety of olive—early-harvest olive oils are typically brighter green in color, while late-harvest oils take on more of a golden hue.
Olive oil’s gold standard is extra-virgin, first cold-pressed, meaning that the olives are pressed within hours of being picked with the utmost care going to proper temperature control. Unfortunately, worldwide standards for testing and quality assurance often fall short. Recent research out of UC Davis found that about 87 percent of olive oil sold in U.S. supermarkets was not only fraudulent, but completely rancid. And even if the olive oil is made well, the distribution channels can ruin perfectly good oil unless strict standards for temperature and packaging are adhered to, says Pappas.
Olive oil should always be kept in a cool place and in dark glass, as it is very sensitive to both heat and light, both of which can cause premature oxidation and ruin the oil.
Americans are so used to butter, margarine, and other more common vegetable oils like soybean, peanut, and canola, that it takes a conscious effort to get more olive oil into their diets, and sometimes a little creativity. Although a delicate oil, olive oil can be used in many cooking applications—but the key is to bring the oil’s temperature up slowly, says Pappas. Its smoke point is 385 degrees Fahrenheit—high enough for frying, sautéing and even deep-frying. Another nourishing way to eat olive oil is as a replacement for butter, says Pappas. Simply refrigerate the oil, which will firm it up, then spread it on anything from bread to corn on the cob.
Olive trees are very drought-tolerant, which is good news for local olive oil enthusiasts: Pappas says that California olive oil production is growing rapidly, with many farmers replanting their fields with olive trees and learning about the industry from European growers.
“Most people are proposing that in 10 years California will be completely sustaining its need for olive oil and we won’t be importing it anymore,” says Pappas. And because of olive oil’s delicate and temperamental qualities, producing and distributing it locally may help maintain its quality and freshness, leading to a better-tasting and healthier product.
PHOTO: HARD-PRESSED The health benefits of olive oil are extensive, but what separates good olive oil from bad? Susan Pappas, owner of the True Olive Connection weighs in.