Though food and diet trends come and go, olive oil has been around for centuries as a building block of good recipes and good health alike. “It falls in that amazing food sweet spot that can seem rare these days. It is something that is both delicious and good for you,” says Hank Dart, who works in prevention and control for Siteman Cancer Center. “Whether you use it in salad dressings or marinades, for sautéing vegetables, or for dipping whole-grain bread, it’s a great way to give your diet a health boost.”
Olives grow extensively throughout the Mediterranean region in countries such as Croatia, Greece, Italy and Spain and they can weather cold winters and hot summers—even on rocky hillsides and in poor soil conditions. With cornerstones of fish, whole grains, fruits, nuts and olives, the “Mediterranean diet” might have been given a catchy name fairly recently, but it’s a reflection of how people have been eating in Southern Europe and North Africa for much longer. And thanks to the range of food (and occasional glass of red wine) the plan allows for, the Mediterranean diet is an appealing one, and people tend to stick with it.
Some may balk at using olive oil because it’s high in fat and calories. There are about 120 calories in one tablespoon. Saturated fats are usually derived from animal products and full-fat dairy, whereas olive oil is packed with “good fat”: unsaturated fats, which largely come from plants. Dart says there “isn’t much correlation between the amount of fat in your diet and putting on weight.” In fact, plenty of evidence suggests that the heart might be the biggest benefactor of unsaturated fat.
“Studies have found that groups who consistently consumed higher amounts of olive oil had a significantly lower risk of heart disease and stroke. And that’s really not too surprising since consuming higher amounts of olive oil has been found to improve many heart disease risk factors. It can lower blood pressure, lower unhealthy blood cholesterol, raise healthy blood cholesterol and have a positive impact on blood sugar, clotting and the normal beating of the heart,” Dart says. It might also lower the risk of diabetes and some cancers.
There are many kinds of olive oil on grocery-store shelves. Extra virgin olive oil is considered the highest quality because it has the lowest acidity and is extracted from the fruit without using heat or chemicals. It’s also the most expensive, so use it when it takes a starring role, such as a dip for bread or in salad dressing. Virgin olive oil is similar, less expensive and a good choice for everyday cooking.
But far more important than the quality of olive oil is how you use it, Dart says. “They all have health benefits. To get the most from olive oil, pair it with an overall diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but low in red and processed meats.”
The bright and buttery flesh of an avocado elevates everything from sandwiches to salsas, but there’s something else that makes it special: Most oils are derived from pressing the skin, pit or seeds of a fruit, but avocado oil comes right from the pulp itself. Because it is high in unsaturated fat (“good fat”) and trans-fat free, it’s an excellent choice for heart health. It also has a sky-high smoke point—that is, is the temperature at which oil starts to smoke, burn and scorch food. Avocado’s smoke point is north of 500°F, so reach for it when preparing meals that require intense heat, such as seared fish and stir fries. It has a neutral flavor, so avocado oil won’t make everything taste like guacamole—for better or worse.
The very name “canola” provides hints about what it is and where it comes from: “Can” stands for “Canada,” where it was developed in the 1970s, and “ola,” which roughly translates to “oil.” Because it’s a result of crossbreeding the rapeseed plant, canola has a reputation for not being as healthy as other oils. But that crossbreeding greatly reduced the amount of naturally occurring erucic acid, which can be toxic in high amounts. At just 7 percent, canola oil is actually lower in saturated fat than almost any other kind of oil. This all-purpose staple has a neutral taste, light texture and works well for baking and frying.
Coconut oil is definitely having a moment. It’s been touted as nature’s own makeup remover, deep conditioner, shaving cream and more. In the kitchen it can treat dishpan hands and replace shortening or butter in many recipes. But its halo of health is a bit crooked. The American Heart Association cautions that more than 80 percent of its calories come from saturated fats—the kind adults should limit to about 13 grams daily—and it’s found in just one tablespoon of coconut oil. Look for cholesterol free coconut oil to play it safe in the kitchen. Unless, of course, you’re slathering it on your hands.
It seems like nearly every recipe calls for olive oil and there’s a good reason for that. The bright green or gold oil that comes from squeezing these fruits is a boon for health, from making your heart happier to helping control blood sugar. Everyday olive oil blends unobtrusively into almost dish, and high-quality varieties can make even sliced bread seem like an indulgence. Some olive oils are infused with herbs and spices and some small-batch varieties can trace their (literal) roots back to a single family’s orchard. From the exquisite to the everyday, they are well worth getting to know.
Used extensively throughout Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine, sesame oil imparts a warm, aromatic depth of flavor. Choose from light or dark: The former has a more neutral taste and is good for all-purpose cooking. The latter is also known as toasted sesame oil because it’s extracted from seeds that are toasted before they’re pressed. Dark sesame oil in particular has a bold, nutty taste that's best used in a drizzle—a final flourish once a dish is ready to be served. All sesame oils are great sources of antioxidants, and there’s evidence that they may help reduce blood pressure and the risk of diabetes
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In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.