Olive oil

Is it still the right choice?

"There's an old Roman saying, Ridgely Evers declares into his car phone as he steers down a rural highway. "The necessary ingredients of civilization are wine and olive oil.

I figured we already had the wine here, so I'd add the olive oil." That's the short version of how he came to own 3,000 olive trees imported from Italy and planted in California soil.

Evers is one of a few dozen American entrepreneurs who've taken up squeezing olives for their oil, sensing that the time is ripe for a domestic comeback. In fact, olive oil's retail sales have more than tripled in the past eight years, making it second only to vegetable oil blends in popularity.

Store shelves are groaning in large part because olive oil is now routinely touted as a key ingredient of a healthy diet. For the last decade, well-publicized research has successfully planted the idea that oils high in monounsaturated fat, such as olive and canola oils, are better for your heart than ones high in polyunsaturates, like corn oil.

The reasoning goes like this: If you simply replace some of the saturated fat in your diet (from steak, say) with vegetable oil (in salads), you'll lower your blood cholesterol. The trouble is, you'll probably cut both your good and bad cholesterol. The bad LDL cholesterol helps clog arteries, so you're better off without it. But HDL cholesterol helps keep your arteries clear. Obviously, the goal is to lower your LDL and raise your HDL.

And that's just what olive oil and the other monounsaturates seem to do--or so concluded a landmark 1985 study by Fred Mattson and Scott Grundy. Grundy, a prominent researcher at the University of Texas Human Nutrition Center, in Dallas, has since lauded olive oil as a better health choice than polyunsaturates.

Then, just late last year, Stanford University epidemiologist Christopher Gardner weighed in with a comprehensive review of 14 large studies on fats and health. His surprising conclusion: It makes no difference whether you use polys or monos, corn oil or olive oil. When it comes to LDLs and HDLs, all the bottled oils seem equally good. What really matters is saturated fat. Even Scott Grundy--the man who helped make olive oil king--declines to quarrel with Gardner's methods or his findings. Of course, it's always a slippery business predicting nutrition trends. But on the science side now, it looks like the monounsaturated era is coming to an end.

Don't throw up your hands. There are still many health experts who'll tell you olive oil's a star. They point to the Mediterranean diet, widely accepted as the world's healthiest. And they cite the legendary work of Ancel Keys, inventor of the U.S. Army K ration, who compared diet and rates of heart disease among seven different countries in the 1960s. Keys found the least heart disease on the island of Crete, where the largely rural population ate little meat, lots of grains, fruit, and vegetables, and staggering amounts of olive oil. As much as 40 percent of the Cretan islanders' daily calories came from olive oil. Farmers reputedly drank it by the glass for breakfast.

In fact, there is reassurance in the Mediterranean's role as a natural nutrition lab. People there have been thriving on olive oil for centuries. There's no comparable region, however, where people have been eating large amounts of corn oil or other polyunsaturates for more than a few decades. Hitch that fact to some evidence linking polyunsaturates to the growth of tumors in lab animals fed immense amounts--and favoring olive oil starts to look like a decent way to hedge your bets.

Still, perhaps the strongest argument in olive oil's favor has nothing directly to do with its health effects. The finest olive oil is a condiment, a delicate dash of flavor that complements other foods. With its distinctive taste, the oil can put the richness and satisfaction back into pasta and rice dishes deprived of butter and cream. You don't need much meat in a spaghetti sauce laced with the strong flavors of garlic and olive oil. What you really lose when you start cooking this way--using olive oil in place of butter and meat-is the harmful saturated fat. That's one of the best things you can do for your heart.

Just don't get carried away, warns Margo Denke, a researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and start believing you can act like the oil-swilling Cretans. "Those people worked in the fields all day," she says. "They were very lean. They don't have the trouble we have, which is that most of us overeat. Now I go into Italian restaurants where there's a bowl of olive oil on the table instead of margarine for bread. And people are really soaking it up. I think, Do you know how many calories you're eating?"

The answer is, about 120 calories a tablespoon. Dip into the olive oil too often anti you may see your weight creep upward and your prospects for longevity edge downward.

The people on the island of Crete never worried about any of this, of course. They used olive oil--a crude, cloudy, rustic variety-because they couldn't afford meat very often. Ridgety Evers's world is a bit more complicated. He bought his olive trees with cash made in the software business. He worries about how he'll ever compete with all the great European oils. But keep an eye out, he says. Full-flavored olive oils made in California are already showing up on specialty store shelves.
The Flavorful Five: Savory Oils for Enlightened Cooking Almond Oil

This sweet oil captures the essence of almonds--so apply it with care. There's no sense in destroying the gentle flavor by heating it to high temperatures. Recommended use: Gently warm the oil in a skillet. Roll fruit in the warmed oil. Drizzle a small amount of balsamic vinegar on the fruit and top with a small amount of coarsely ground black pepper. Serve as an after-dinner salad. Cost for 8 ounces: about $4.50.
Walnut Oil

The most widely available of the tree nut oils, walnut oil s a favorite in France for its rich, piquant flavor. Like he more common peanut oil, it's high in polyunsaturates. Recommended use: Try it instead of olive oil in a salad--or in a pizza. Add two tablespoons to a standard yeast bread dough. Roll out the dough for a 12-inch pizza and top with half an ounce of crumbled gorgonzola cheese and one sliced pear. Cost for 8 ounces: about $2.50.
Macadamia Nut Oil

Processed from Hawaiian nuts, this light-tasting oil is high in monounsaturated fat. Unlike olive oil, macadamia oil retains its nutty taste and resists smoking at sauteing temperatures. Recommended use: Try it in a hot salad dressing. Heat three tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Saute one tablespoon of chopped shallots and one garlic clove, minced. Stir in three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and a half tablespoon of capers. Serve hot over shredded fresh spinach. Cost for 8 ounces: about $4.50.
Avocado Oil

A soft, buttery tasting oil that's high in monounsaturates, avocado oil is especially good for fast, hot cooking, since it doesn't start smoking till it hits 500 degrees. It's not a standard supermarket item, however. Look for it and other exotic oils in special food shops. Recommended use: Heat a scant tablespoon of avocado oil in a wok or skillet, and stir-fly chunks of red and green pepper, onion, and crookneck squash. Serve with tortillas and salsa. Cost for 8 ounces: about $4.50.
Hazelnut Oil

Filberts, or hazelnuts, produce an oil that's 78 percent monounsaturated with a subtle, nutty taste. But should you use it for high-heat cooking? "That would be a sin ." says Mary Donevan. of the Culinary Institute of America. Recommended use: Add two teaspoons of hazelnut oil to the batter for angel food cake. The oil will retain most of its flavor because it's heated gently. Or drizzle a teaspoon or two on steamed green beans or broccoli as a dressing. Cost for 8 ounces: about $5.

PHOTO (COLOR): Almond

PHOTO (COLOR): Walnut

PHOTO (COLOR): Macadamia Nuts

PHOTO (COLOR): Avocado

PHOTO (COLOR): Hazelnut

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By ANTHONY SCHMITZ

Photographs by MARIA ROBLEDO

Anthony Schmitz is a contributing editor.

SIDNEY WOLFE is director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group in Washington, D.C.

WHY EXTRA VIRGIN OIL TASTES BEST

As with wines, the flavor of olive oil depends on the types of fruit pressed for the oil, the region where they were grown, the year's weather, and how quickly and how well the dives were pressed. Check the bottles: Oil from olives harvested early in the season is generally greener and has a fruitier taste-best for delicate salads. Late-harvested olives yield a more golden oil that tastes nuttier-perhaps better with garlic. Here's how to decipher the labels.
EXTRA VIRGIN

To make extra virgin oils, top-grade olives are carefully picked and quickly pressed, without the addition of water, heat, or solvents that can spoil the flavor. Puzzled by the term "cold pressed"? Just remember that all extra virgin olive oil is pressed at room temperature.

After pressing, any water from the olives is drained off and the oil is filtered. Experts then judge whether it meets quality standards set by the International Olive Oil Council for taste, color, and aroma. Those that do are declared extra virgin, provided that tests also show that the oils are low in acid--a marker of whether the olives have been handled carefully.
PLAIN

Oils that don't qualify as extra virgin are refined chemically to lower their acid levels. These treated oils end up tasteless and odorless, so flavorful extra virgin oil is added.
LIGHT

Light olive oils aren't low in fat. They're simply plain oils that have had little or no extra virgin oil added after refining.

Bear in mind that fine oils lose their flavor at high temperatures. Save your best oil for salads and vegetable dishes and buy a lesser variety for sauteing.
--ANTHONY SCHMITZ

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