As a staple of the lauded Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been praised for its healthful qualities and flavor in countries such as Italy and Greece for quite a long time, and now it’s gained a foothold in the United States as well.
Olive oil was first produced in the Greek islands over 5,000 years ago and in 500 B.C., the trees were taken to Greek colonies in Italy, Spain and throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas. In America, olive oil usage has risen from 30% in households five years ago to 50% today (1).
The first studies done 50 years ago on the Mediterranean diet’s effects on longevity revolved around a population on the Greek island of Crete. As consumption rises, more and more studies link olive oil with all kinds of health benefits: from lowering inflammation to reduced cancer risk.
This month’s Gourmet Guru is Peter Panagotacos, M.D., owner of Lykovouno, which produces and distributes olive oil and oregano. The olives are grown, picked and made into oil on Dr. Panagotacos’s private estate in his ancestral village of Lykovouno, Greece. All Lykovouno products are organic and unadulterated.
|Gourmet Guru Peter Panagotacos’s family helps out at his private estate in Greece, where all Lykovouno olives are grown, picked and turned into oil.|
WholeFoods: What are some of the biggest reasons to use olive oil as opposed to other options like canola oil while cooking?
Panagotacos: First, olive oil is very versatile. You can use it in a salad, with steamed vegetables, and even as a substitute for a béarnaise sauce. Do you normally squeeze a little lemon into your recipes at the end? Pour in a little olive oil instead. You can use it for a light sauté also. In Greece, some people even use it to fry eggs and potatoes. You mentioned canola oil specifically. Just about anything you can cook with canola oil can be cooked with olive oil.
Olive oil also is very healthy, with a high smoke point and distinct flavor you may want to impart into your dish. A good olive oil will enhance the flavor of your vegetables and meats and is also delicious as a dip for bread or drizzled over fish, tomatoes and potatoes. Some people don’t want to cook with animal fats, so olive oil can be a great substitute.
WholeFoods: Speaking of health, your Web site (www.lykovouno.com) has a great PDF presentation on some of the health benefits of olive oil. Could you share some of the highlights with us?
Panagotacos: The file you mention is from two lectures I gave at UC Davis in 2008 and 2009 on the Health Benefits of Olive Oil at their yearly Sensory Evaluation short course. As for the health benefits, the biggest one is antioxidants. Olive oil, especially a good extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), has lots of antioxidants. These help fight free radical oxidation, which causes aging. That’s part of the reason you hear of people in the region living for so long. Olive oil can also help with inflammation. A small bit of oil can also help cut down on appetite due to the way the fats in it are metabolized, which is useful for people who need to manage their diets, such as diabetics. Recent studies say it can even help with Alzheimer’s.
|Peter Panagotacos, M.D.|
The thing is, this is old science, not new science. There’s been advocacy for olive oil for years, but only recently are the studies coming out to back this up.
WholeFoods: It certainly sounds like olive oil can help a variety of people. Your Web site also mentioned problems with imported olive oils being adulterated with non-olive oils. What should buyers look out for to ensure they get the highest quality product?
Panagotacos: Unfortunately, this is a problem, and there isn’t much that can be done legally due to the laws abroad not really being equipped to deal with it. Sometimes, product can be blended before it’s even exported. The best thing buyers can do is buy their oil from someone they trust. All of our olive oil is chemically analyzed to prove its quality, and we have all of the reports up on our Web site. You don’t have to be an expert to taste the difference between a good EVOO and the run of the mill.
WholeFoods: Going back to what you said about tasting the difference, do you think that Greek olive oil has a different taste than other oils from Italy or Spain?
Panagotacos: Certainly. Not only is it different from country to country, but from region to region. Our olives are Koroneiki olives originally planted around Sparta in about 1,500 B.C. These have a distinct flavor from olives from other parts of Greece.
WholeFoods: Do you have any favorite recipes that highlight olive oil?
|The Panagotacos family takes a break from picking olives for a photo op.|
Panagotacos: A good salad is great for olive oil. One good one is a Caprese salad with some mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, salt, pepper and a little oregano. A personal favorite of mine is a Cretan salad called a Dakos. It’s a barley muffin of sorts with tomato, feta cheese and olive oil drizzled on top of it. It’s delicious, and the lycopenes in the tomatoes combined with the olive oil’s antioxidants can lower risk of heart disease. I also like a light breakfast of toasted sourdough bread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with crushed oregano. It’s a great substitute for buttered garlic bread. We have many recipes on our Web site.
WholeFoods: Thanks, Dr. Panagotacos, for your insights on the many uses and properties of olive oil. WF
1. North American Olive Association, “Olive Oil Consumption,” www.aboutoliveoil.org/consumption.html, accessed 5/12/14.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2014