Friday, February 20, 2009

Olive oil: The gift of gods

According to Greek mythology, when Athens (the modern capital of Greece and the most powerful Greek city during the classical era) was created, 2 gods were "claiming" it as their place of worship and competing for it: Poseidon, the God of Sea, and Athena, the Godess of Wisdom and War. Each had to produce a gift for the city and its people, in order to earn their support. Poseidon was first, and produced a stream of clear water - he promised that the people would have it in abundance for eternity. Athena was next, and she presented the audience with an olive tree - olives and olive oil would come from it, and they would feed the Greeks for generations. As you can understand by the city's name, Athena won. Some even blame that competition for the city's short supply of water nowadays. But, as Athena promised, olive oil is still widely produced in Greece, and is the base of Greek diet and tradition. But did the Greeks choose wisely?

I dare say they did. The benefits of olive oil are proven, and widely advertised. This product is so deeply embedded in the Greek dna and way of life, that nobody here actually needed the scientific researches and trials for reasurrance - all across the country, it is basically the only oil used in cooking (of course, the fact that it is easily available helps also). And you don't need to be a smart doctor like me to convince anybody for its benefits here - in fact, even if I said it was harmful, my grandmother would nod in disapproval and tell me to lie down, because I run a fever and don't know what I am talking about! After all, you cannot mess with wisdom that is handed down from one generation to another, for centuries...

But I wonder: Does olive oil, which is as basic as salt and pepper here, sound kind "of exotic" to my American friends? As exotic as tortillas, blueberries and jalapenos sound to me? Is it easily available worldwide? Is it cheap (here it costs about 7 dollars per liter)? And does everybody know how good it is for your health, apart from cold, complicated and evasive scientific data?

What triggered these questions was All recipes, one of my favourite food sites, and the fact that one recipe of mine, "Greek chicken stew (stifado)" was published there. This is a traditional Greek dish, and I couldn't predict how it would be accepted by my friends there. Luckily, people seem to like it, but almost all of them were taken aback by the amount of olive oil suggested to use - 1 cup for 8 servings. They thought it was too much and politely pointed out the fact in their feedback. I answered that 1 cup is the typical amount used in most Greek dishes. But this kept me wondering if it was indeed too much - obviously, the answer that "everybody here did it this way" wasn't enough for me... And after all, why oh why is olive oil good for you? (Ok, grandma, you are free to skip this!)

I'll leave out as many boring stuff as I can, just try to bare with me. First of all, everybody knows how bad cholesterol is for your heart, that if it is elevated, then a low-cholesterol diet should be followed, and generally that cholesterol is the enemy. Well, right... and wrong. Cholesterol IS bad for your heart (too much cholesterol, anyway). But the main problem is NOT how much of it you get by eating. The main problem is how much YOUR BODY produces. Because our body produces cholesterol on its own, based on our fat intake. So the next question is, how DO I get cholesterol, if not by eating?

Cholesterol is mostly produced in the liver, and then it is distributed to the rest of the body. However, it cannot travel alone, but it needs carriers - the so called "lipoproteins". The one that takes cholesterol from liver to the other tissues is LDL. And, here we come to the true culprit of the crime: Because if LDL is too much, then it is accumulated in the vessel walls, forms plaques, and therefore we have atherosclerosis - vessels can be blocked and coronary disease can occur.

Luckily, there is HDL, the scavenger. This lipoprotein takes the opposite route - from the rest of the body to the liver, for disposal. It is literally the garbage cleaner, and that's why we call it the "good" cholesterol.

Ok, I hope I haven't lost all of you with those details. But back to the subject: Where does olive oil fit in all that? Well, it does. Because it contains fat. But not all fat is the same. There is "good" fat, and there is "bad fat" (ok, there is also very bad fat, but this is a topic for another post). The good ones, which lower LDL and increase HDL are the unsaturated ones, and the bad ones, those which increase LDL, are the saturated. As a rule, saturated fats come from meat and dairy products.

But guess what: The best source of monounsaturated fats (a subdivision of the unsaturated aka "good" fats) is olive oil! As a result, it lowers LDL, increases HDL, and therefore offers protection against heart disease. It also contains antioxidants and vitamin E, which are considered protective for colon cancer and osteoporosis. Also, it is well tolerated by the stomach, and can have a beneficial role in cases of gastritis and ulcer.

As with everything else, however, we shouldn't overdo it. Despite the fact that olive oil has many health benefits, too much is never good. But how much is too much? Studies show that the "golden rule" is approximately 2 tablespoons per day. And for those who need specific nutrition data, 1 tablespoon contains 120 calories, 14 mg fat (86% unsaturated) and no cholesterol.

But I fear this has taken too long for a single post. I don't even know if all this is interesting for you. Nevertheless, I will come back tomorrow with more practical stuff - such as types of olive oil, ways of storing it, and back to back comparisons with other types of oils. For now, I just hope I didn't bore you too much...


  1. Great info. Gracey. In the part of America where I live, olive oil is readily available at the grocery store. There are at least 6 or 7 brands available and it costs about $6 for the 17 oz. bottle I usually buy. I cook with it quite often, but I'd love to see some authentic Greek recipes! And no, you didn't bore me!!

  2. I agree with Willoughby. I found your post very informative. I knew that olive oil was good for us, I just didn't know the particulars. I DID see a show once (I think Giada de Laurentiis traveled to Greece) and it was stated that Greeks have the healthiest diet of any country in the world...mainly because of their use of olive oil and fresh ingredients. I spend 7-10 dollars, depending on the brand that I buy. I'm not a big fan of the flavor (I don't like olives...go figure) I don't use it raw, nor do I use it in desserts. I will, however, use it in dressings...and everthing else! Sorry for the long post!

  3. Lovin' the olive oil in the 5thsis household. I actually won a basket of Greek skin care products last November: BioSelect. Love the hand cream, eye cream, face scrub, etc... Have you heard of it?

  4. I am glad you liked the post, and I am relieved to know that olive oil is not painfully expensive in the US (we ourselves don't buy it, because we produce it). As for dessers, yes, even Greek people don't use it with everything - sometimes the butter just can't be substituted. Funny thing about the olives... Ernesto can't stand them, either (I tease him about this all the time, and I call him "picky little kid" - even though it is the only thing he doesn't like, yes I am evil! LOL) And 5th, yes, I have heard of BioSelect. It is even a Cretan company (I live on Crete)!

  5. Oh, listen to you..."We ourselves don't buy it because we produce it." Sheesh...rub it in a little, will ya? LOL! Just kidding! I'm sure the quality that you are used to would be the more expensive brands over here. Now, some of THOSE would cost a wee bit more than 7-10 dollars!

  6. LOL! I didn't realise I was bragging... but the truth is that the quality here is very high. Honestly, Cretan and Kalamatan oil do stand out, and if you have tasted it even once, you can definitely tell the difference even from decent oil that is sold in the supermarkets here. Ok, I'll try to stop being a snob now. And to make ammends for my vanity, I'm gonna go make muffins with my disgusting FROZEN berries, that don't even have a name -just "berries". Blueberries, raspberries, and stuff are totally unknown to me. So much that, when thames was talking about huckleberries the other day, I thought that she was joking! How many berries are there out there, people? And why don't I know anything about them? Ugh, life is not fair...! LOL

  7. I got lost :( although I think the point was that Olive oil is good am I right? Someone asked about using it instead reg. oil in something they were baking, on the AR posts, A lot of people said they didn't like the flavor it gave their baked goods, I use it instead of reg. oil for everything & have never really noticed a big difference. So I'm glad it's one of the good guys :)