By this point, the term “good fat” has gone mainstream. People are once again delving into avocados, nuts, seeds, and butter after the long reign of low-fat, high carbohydrate diet that ruled the common kitchen paradigm. The work of Ancel Keys (poor research turned into even worse blanket advice about the dangers of dietary lipids) has now been de-bunked. While Key’s scanty lab findings showed minor correlations between mice fed a diet of fat and the development of heart disease, the details of his work showed that the food being given to rats was not full-fat dairy, steaks, or avocados, or any other whole food. The meal was a composite of refined vegetable oils. Long story short, the powers of marketing took over, and animal-based saturated fats (i.e. butter, red meat, etc) were vilified, and vegetable oils touted as “heart-healthy”.
The unfortunate side-effect of dietary lipid (i.e. fat from food) phobia was the increase in processed foods marketed as “low-fat” and “heart-healthy.” Often times, these foods contained increased amounts of sugar, refined salt, and inflammatory vegetable oils in order to give them the flavor that would normally be imparted by whole food fat. Research is now showing increases in refined sugar consumption may be correlated to heart disease, and other degenerative conditions. The U.S. population has certainly grown more sick in the last two decades while eating the standard American diet.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Anti-Oxidants
One of the most time honored and nutrient dense fats is delicious extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). The key here is that not all olive oils are created equal. There are olive oil blends, refined olive oil and other imposters out there that have very little nutritional value, or that easily turn rancid – releasing free radicals that are can prematurely age the body.
Extra virgin olive oil is particularly rich in phenols, which are healthful anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants are wonderful in our bodies, as they neutralize free-radicals in our system. One key to retaining the highest content of phenols in your EVOO is to buy the freshest bottle you can, which will keep levels of phenols high, improving shelf life. If you think about EVOO as olive juice, you can greatly appreciate how freshness makes a huge difference.
Phenols are also indicators of temperature cooking tolerance. Many people shy away from using EVOO in their cooking because they’ve been told it has a low-smoke point. Again we find, all extra virgin olive oils are not created equal. Lower levels of phenols, in the 100-200 ppm will be palatable to most people and will have a mild flavor will lend itself well to salad dressings, pestos or other cold preparation foods. Higher levels, say 450 ppm, would be perfect for searing a steak, imparting phenomenal flavor to boot.
What effects the quality of EVOO?
One method of measuring the quality of EVOO is to measure its free fatty acid (FFA) content. It indicates poor quality oil or mishandled olives, too much time between harvesting and extraction, poor storage, or high temperature extraction. Perhaps you’ve seen labeling on oil that says to keep it away from light in dark, cool places. UV light can easily degrade oil, which is why high quality oil is packaged in dark glass, stainless steel, or ceramic. Elevated levels of UV absorption indicate oxidization and/or poor quality oil. It can also indicate that the oil has been refined or altered with refined oil. On that note, storage of oil in plastic not only allows light to damage the oil, but toxins from the plastic itself can easily leach into your otherwise healthful oil. Unfortunately, not many labels will tell you the FFA content, which is why having a 3rd party seal of approval can be quite helpful.
How do I know I’m getting high quality oil?
Because there is a lot of confusing labeling out there, it is convenient to have trusted governing organizations that have done the background check for you. The Ultra Premium (UP) Olive Oil seal is currently the gold standard for EVOO. Their analyzation process looks for qualities of nutrition, authenticity, sustainable farming, and extraction methods.
A few of the key standards that are met if an EVOO is approved with a Ultra Premium seal:
- Oil must contain 100% of content from olives
- Must be estate produced or have complete traceability of each cultivar
- Must list all variety or varieties of olives
- Must display “Harvest” or “Crush” date
- Cannot be more than 14 months old from Harvest/Crush date
- Must be extracted by mechanical means, not chemical.
Walla Walla is very lucky to have a shop that carries UP approved extra virgin olive oils. D’Olivo on Main St. has a knowledgeable staff that can guide you to the perfect bottle of EVOO for cooking, cold preparations, or just dipping a fresh baguette into. They also have a wide variety of artisan vinegar, to make your perfect salad or steamed vegetable dressing. Commercial salad dressings (even organic ones, unfortunately) often contain highly refined, inflammatory vegetable oils such as soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower, and corn. Many amazing flavors can be made using a simple mix of EVOO, vinegar, and a little sea salt. As a bonus, you’ll be nourishing your body!