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Olive oil - Healthiest cooking medium
Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
V N Dalmia

The origin of olive oil is aptly the stuff of myth and legend. According to Greek folklore, the oldest of Western mythologies, olive oil dates back to the time when Zeus, the God of Gods, had to decide the inheritance of the Earth between his daughter Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, the Lord of the Seas.

The two contenders were asked what each would bestow upon humanity as their greatest gift. In answer, Poseidon struck his trident against a rock and seawater poured out. There was an awed silence. Calmly, Athena stepped forward. Tapping the ground, she called forth a new and miraculous tree—the Olive. The enchanted assembly of gods awarded the Earth to Athena and for two days there were celebrations during which amphorae of olive oil were distributed among the rejoicing citizens of Mount Olympus.

The olive tree finds frequent mention in the Bible as well. In the story of Noah’s Ark, the dove that flies in to the exhausted Noah with the momentous announcement that the floodwaters are finally receding, carries in its beak an olive branch. Today, an olive branch carried by a white dove is the universal symbol of peace.

The Holy Koran too includes the olive as one of its Four Sacred Symbols along with the Fig, Mount Sinai and the Sacred City of Mecca. It refers to the olive as ‘Blessed Tree’ and of its oil says, ‘Olive oil takes the high place and deserves its sacred associations.’

Historically, formal cultivation of the tree goes back about 6000 years. First cultivated by the inhabitants of what are now Israel and Syria, it spread to Egypt and thence to Greece. The oldest known written records of olive oil have been found on clay tablets from the island of Crete during the reign of King Minos around 2500 B.C. These tablets speak of the economic importance of this oil, which explains the prolific spread of the tree.

Boats – first Phoenician and then Greek – spread olive cuttings throughout the Mediterranean. Centuries later, the Spaniards performed the same service: cuttings of the olive tree sailed with their galleons to the New World: California and South America. More recently, Australia imported olive cuttings from Italy and Spain and began to cultivate the tree.


Olive oil is the juice of the olive. It is the only oil on the market that is extracted from a fresh fruit. Currently there are 3 main varieties of olive oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: It is the highest-grade olive oil with perfect aroma and flavour. EV oil results from the first cold pressing of the olive fruit within 24 hours of harvesting. EV oil is comparatively heavy and viscous and suitable only for dips, dressings, flavourings and condiments. EV oil is not suitable for cooking Indian cuisine. Its main culinary application is for cold dishes: to dress salads, pasta, rice, vegetables, meat and fish.

Olive Oil: The second variety is a combination of refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil. Refined olive oil is obtained by refining sub-optimal virgin oils. After refining, the oil is blended with EV olive oil. Olive oil is intermediate grade oil with medium aroma and flavour and a paler colour. Olive oil is suitable for pan and deep-frying, stir-fries, sautés and stews. In cakes and pastries, it is used both as an ingredient in dough as also for frying but it, too, is not suitable for cooking Indian cuisine. However, olive oil is the oil most suitable for all types of body massage. Olive oil is medium-priced oil.

Olive Pomace Oil: The third variety is the main cooking grade oil. It is a light oil with neutral taste and flavour and is the most suitable oil for Indian cuisine as it does not change the flavour or taste of any preparation. Olive pomace oil is obtained by treating the olive residue paste (after the fruit has been pressed) with solvents to extract the oil and then blending this product with EV oil in order to enhance the product and its health benefits. Olive pomace oil is the least expensive olive oil.

From November 1, 2003, the European Union has prescribed strict standards for olive oil. EV oil must have acidity not exceeding 0.8%, olive oil 1% and olive pomace oil 1%.

Health benefits

It is now universally accepted that the Mediterranean countries have a low incidence of cardiovascular disease and high life expectancy. It is no coincidence that olive oil is the common content in Mediterranean food.

Olive oil is now widely regarded as the healthiest of all edible oils, a fact which has been confirmed by worldwide research. The greatest benefit of olive oil is that it fights coronary heart disease. Olive oil has the highest content of monounsaturated fats (MUF) and among the lowest amounts of other harmful fats. MUF reduces bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides. No other oil has this unique combination of high MUF and low amounts of other harmful fats. The United States Food & Drug Administration (USFDA) has authorised the use of a label on all bottles of olive oil stating that olive oil may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Olive oil has been shown to lower high blood pressure -- in some cases far enough that certain patients can throw away their medicine. University of Naples researchers compared olive oil to sunflower oil in a group of 23 patients. After six months, the average systolic blood pressure in the olive oil group had dropped from 134 mm recorded at the start to 127 mm and the diastolic pressure had dropped from 90 mm to 84 mm. On the whole, patients eating olive oil had lowered their blood pressure so much that they could cut their daily dose of high blood pressure medication by 48%. Eight were able to stop their medication entirely. Sunflower oil, however, showed no effect on patients' blood pressure. In another study at Harvard, respondents with healthy blood pressure were averaging a consumption of 3 ounces or 85 grams of olive oil per day. Health benefits began to appear with as little as 1 ounce or 28 grams per day.

Oleic acid in olive oil reduces the risk of breast cancer, according to the latest research at Northwestern University. Oleic acid blocks the action of a cancer causing oncogene called HR-2/neu, which is found in about 30% breast cancer patients. Oleic acid also improves the effectiveness of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, a targeted therapy that works against the HR-2/neu gene. The most important source of oleic acid is olive oil. Oleic acid also protects against ulcerative colitis, the inflammatory bowel disease, as per preliminary research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

An olive-oil based herbal extract preparation called Zyflamend suppresses the growth of prostate cancer cells and induces prostate cancer cells to self-destruct, according to a study by the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons reported in the journal Nutrition and Cancer. Zyflamend has the ability, in culture, to reduce prostate cancer cell growth by as much as 78% and induce cancer cell death or "apoptosis." Phase 1 clinical trials for men are currently being conducted.

Have a headache? No aspirin or ibuprofen handy? Try some raw extra virgin olive oil! Would you believe, it contains a compound that mimics the pain-relieving action of ibuprofen? The compound, oleocanthal, recently discovered at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, is a naturally occurring non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory agent exclusi
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