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Olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 11:40 a.m. CST

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Olive oil is a fat obtained from the olive, a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin.

The oil is produced by grinding whole olives and extracting the oil by mechanical or chemical means. Extra-virgin, virgin and regular olive oils are all excellent sources of monounsaturated fats.

When used in place of saturated fats, such as butter, monounsaturated fats appear to improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attack. They may also play a role in lowering the risk of some cancers.

Several grades of olive oil are available. Here’s how they differ:

• Extra virgin. This type of olive oil has the strongest flavor. It’s extracted mechanically on the first pressing from ripe olives, without the use of heat or chemicals, and has an acidity level of less than 1 percent.

It’s the least processed of the different grades of oil. As a result, it retains the highest levels of antioxidants and polyphenolics found in olives. Antioxidants appear to protect the body from age-related changes and certain diseases.

This olive oil is more likely to burn or smoke during cooking. Use it as a flavoring in marinades, sauces and dressings for a distinctively fruity flavor.

• Virgin. Like extra-virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil is made without the use of heat or chemicals, but it’s more acidic and tastes less intense than extra-virgin olive oil.

The filtration process may reduce some of the antioxidants and polyphenolics in virgin olive oil. Use it for general cooking.

• Regular or pure. Olive oil labeled without any other designation is a pure blend of extra-virgin and refined olive oils. It has a less distinctive, though still fruity, flavor. Use it for general cooking.

• Light. This olive oil contains little, if any, extra-virgin oil. It’s chemically extracted from olives and has less of the antioxidants and polyphenolics found in virgin olive oil.

It’s not light in the amount of fat, but in the taste, color and fragrance. Use it for general cooking.

Pompeian is the first olive oil manufacturer to attain a U.S. Department of Agriculture quality assurance logo. In April the agency expanded its Quality Monitoring Program to include extra-virgin and organic extra-virgin olive oil.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis reported that a majority of popular brands of olive oil sold did not meet extra-virgin olive oil standards. 

To be considered extra-virgin the oils must have no sensory defects such as rancidity. They must also offer some fruity flavor and aroma and meet very specific chemistry-based criteria.

Read more about olive oil’s health benefits at www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu.

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