Olive: The Good Oil
Drilling for oil in San Luis Obispo County may be controversial, but so far no one has objected to planting more trees that yield a different kind of oil: olive!
The oil is made from the fruit of the Olea europaea, which grows primarily in the Mediterranean basin, so it’s not surprising that Spain, Greece and Italy are its largest consumers. However, California is quickly catching up. We can now boast that our state produces the lion’s share of the olive crop in the United States.
According to Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, “San Luis Obispo County has the largest concentration of artisan growers in the whole state.”
One reason may be our climate and soil, because the olive tree grows best in sun, heat, calcareous soils, limestone slopes and coastal climates. Another reason might be our entrepreneurial spirit.
In addition to giving flavor to food, olive oil has medicinal properties, promoting a healthy heart and lower blood sugar*. Only olive oil and a few others (such as avocado) have a high amount of mono saturated fats, as compared to most poly saturated vegetable oils. Susan S. Swadener, PhD, a Registered Dietician who lectures in Cal Poly’s Food Science and Nutrition Department, explains: “Mono saturated fats lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides without lowering good cholesterol (HDL). Olive oil also contains polyphenols (antioxidents) that protect cells from damage and may be an anti-inflammatory. And some studies show that it might even help with breast cancer prevention. In my work, I promote olive oil for people who are concerned about their health. You need fat in your diet but it’s best to get more of it from plants.”
At the risk of sounding like snake oil salesmen, olive oil promoters say that olive oil helps prevent everything from dementia to depression. However, many claims for olive oil are backed by solid research. To find out what some local olive oil producers thought, I visited Gregg Bone and Audrey Burnham, owners of Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, and Cheryl Wieczorek, general manager of Pasolivo.
All three told me about a Spanish study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that compared a population group put on a diet high in olive oil (the Mediterranean diet) to a group following a low-fat diet. Cheryl said, “They stopped the study because the results showed the low-fat diet was unhelpful in reducing cardiovascular risk compared to the positive results from the olive-oil-rich diet.”
The same study also showed that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 50% more than the low-fat diet by reducing blood sugar levels and insulin resistance.*
At a meeting of the California Olive Oil Council that Cheryl attended, “a cardiologist showed us slides of how mono saturated oil acts to repair free radicals, changing them back to healthy cells. The doctor said that 80% of his patients would not be in his office if they consumed more olive oil!”
And Audrey told an anecdote about her mother: “Mom has high blood pressure and so she’s at risk for diabetes and heart disease. She comes to stay with us for three months each year and when she goes home, her doctor always comments on how good her blood work looks.”
But according to both orchards, the oil has to be “extra virgin” for people to derive the most health benefits. Cheryl pointed out that an extensive study, sponsored by the University of California Davis’s Olive Center, found a shocking statistic: “Out of the 200 supermarkets they surveyed, nearly 2/3 of the olive oils were falsely labeled as ‘extra-virgin’ grade. What’s more, about a third weren’t 100% olive oil but were cut with other types of oil.” Cheryl suggests that buyers check the bottle for the California Olive Council’s certification sticker.
The other requirement to reap olive oil’s benefits is its freshness. Cheryl pointed out that imported oil may have spent months on a ship and/or grocery store shelf; the older the oil, the less antioxidants it has. This is one good reason to buy local! At both Kiler Ridge and Pasolivo, harvesting, pressing, and bottling is completed within a week.
OK, you buy fresh, local olive oil, but how much oil is enough to get the health benefits cited in the various studies? Turns out the amount is four tablespoons a day. To me that sounded like a lot, but Audrey didn’t think so:
“People can use it on vegetables and in salad dressings. And if you buy a variety that doesn’t have too strong a taste, such as Arbequina, you can even bake with it!”
I left Pasolivo with a sample of six oils to try at home and the lingering taste of Kiler Ridge’s five varieties I had tried. Unlike my wine tasting forays, I had nary a worry about police checks and breathalyzers. And before I undertake Thanksgiving cooking, I plan to consult the recipes on both orchards’ websites to make sure that everyone in my family leaves the table with the requisite four tablespoons of olive oil.
*According to an article in Diabetes Care reported in Olive Oil Times