Green Fingers I Wish

Monday, March 16, 2009

Olive Oil-Liquid Gold

Did you know that olive oil is a fruit juice? If you live in a Mediterranean country, it may not come as any surprise. After all, it is estimated that of the 775 million olive trees under cultivation in the world, about 96% are in the Mediterranean region. In Greece 60% of its cultivated land is devoted olive growing, and is the top producer of black olives. In some lands olive oil has played an important role in people's lives for thousands of years.

Olive oil really is a liquid gold, in that it has not only nutritional value, but many people depend on it economically too.

In simple terms, the olive is the fruit of an evergreen, (Olea europaea), and olive oil is essentially what is squeezed from the olive. Because of its slow growth, the olive tree may take up to ten years or more before producing well. After that, the tree can produce fruit for hundreds of years. It is said that there are olive trees in Palestine that date back more than a thousand years!

The production of olive oil begins by crushing the olives under millstones. The crushing produces a paste that is placed under hydraulic presses to extract the juices. This is no ordinary fruit juice, however. It is actually a mix of water and oil. After the water has been removed, the oil is graded, stored, and bottled for consumption.

In Ancient Times

The versatility of olive oil was especially evident in the ancient world. In Egypt, for example, olive oil was used as a lubricant in moving heavy building materials. In addition to being a basic food, olive oil was used as a cosmetic and as fuel in the Middle East.

According to a number of Bible accounts, olive oil, laced with perfume, was used as a skin lotion. It was also commonly applied to the skin as protection from the sun and after bathing. To grease the head of a guest with oil was considered an act of hospitality. The oil also served a medicinal purpose as it was used to soothe bruises and wounds. And olive oil was likely an ingredient used in preparing a person for burial. What was commonly burned as fuel in ancient lamps? It was the multipurpose olive oil!

Recognized today as a high-energy food and one of the most digestible fats, olive oil also served as a staple in the Israelite diet.

In Modern Times

Today olive oil is as multipurpose as ever. Olive oil products are included in cosmetics, detergents, medicines, and even textiles. Olive oil in soap has a natural ability to mix with water and go deeply into the pores of the skin. This has a cleansing quality that rarely happens with other soap. But the oil still serves principally as food. Although its popularity in Europe and the Middle East is unmatched, in recent years it has been in increasing demand in other lands as well.

Why this big increase? One reason is that olive oil is said to be a good source of vitamin E. A number of studies have also revealed that the consumption of the monounsaturated fats in olive oil might benefit the heart without negative side effects. Another study claimed that olive oil may lower blood pressure and reduce blood-sugar levels.

Some experts have recommended a high-fat diet based on monounsaturates such as are found in olive oil. Consumer Reports noted that such recommendation "caused something of a sensation, because the notion that any high-fat diet could be good for the heart was almost nutritional heresy. Monounsaturates soon garnered increased press attention, and sales of olive oil accelerated."

Are these claims generally accepted? There seems to be little dispute over the claim that the monounsaturated fats found in olives, avocados, and some nuts are a healthier choice than the polyunsaturated and saturated fats found in other foods. However, some experts feel that the other claims have been somewhat exaggerated.

A group of researchers gave this advice: "All olive oil, 'light' or not, is 100 percent fat and contains about 125 calories per tablespoon. For that reason alone, it can play only a limited role in a healthful diet. The potential health benefits of olive oil come exclusively from its use as a substitute for butter, margarine, and other vegetable oils-and even those benefits have been overstated." With good reason the International Olive Oil Council published this warning: "Before you get carried away by enthusiasm and add gallons of olive oil to your diet, a few words of caution are in order. Large consumption of olive oil may keep you healthy, but not necessarily thin."

A study in the British Medical Journal, in 2008, reported that the Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Researchers in Spain used detailed questionnaires to track the eating habits of more than 13,000 Spanish university graduates for several years. They found that those who closely followed a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil but with little red meat, and only a moderate amount of dairy, reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 83%.

Grades of Olive Oil

* Extra-virgin olive oil comes from cold pressing of the olives, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste. It is the highest grade possible. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oil may not contain refined oil.

* Virgin olive oil has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.

* Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. Manufacturers refine this type of oil with the use of solvents, which are then removed, then blended with high-quality virgin olive oil. It commonly lacks a strong flavor.

* Olive-pomace oil is a blend of refined pomace olive oil and possibly some virgin oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. Olive-pomace oil is rarely sold at retail; it is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.

* Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food; lampante comes from olive oil's use in lamps which are oil-burning.


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