The Endless Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

We sat down with Chef Kevin O'Connor to give us the rundown of why and what the versatile cooking oil can do for our health.

extra virgin olive oil health benefits, a big dinner with food and olive oil
Image: Cobram Estate

There’s a mystery behind extra virgin olive oil and it’s health benefits. Not much is known about the incredible cooking oil. It’s got the power to benefit your health in many different ways. It can also make a dish a million times more appetizing. Pasta, drizzled over a salad, on a burrata, you name it, we’ve done it with olive oil. Shopping at the grocery store, we tend to get a little confused when picking between cooking oils. Why extra virgin? What does it mean? We’re here to tell you there’s a slight difference that can make your healthy dishes all the better. We here at Amodrn spoke to Chef Kevin O’Connor of Cobram Estate on why he loves extra virgin olive oil. He gave us the low down on its extraction process, health benefits, and why it’s definitely not refined olive oil. Keep reading for more!

Essentially, what is extra virgin olive oil? How is it made?

Olive oil is the broad term used to describe the natural fruit juice of the olive. There are various grades of olive oil, each having distinct differences in health benefits, usages, etc.  Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and is essentially the pure, unadulterated juice of fresh, healthy olives. In an ideal environment, the fruit is harvested when it is still green and just starting to ripen. To make sure maximum flavor and health benefits are extracted, the freshly harvested fruit makes its way to the mill in two to four hours. Once the fruit is at the mill it is squished into an emulsified paste using a hammer mill. This emulsion of fruit, crushed pits, oil, and water then makes its way to the malaxer. This is where the temperature-controlled “cold processing” happens.
In the malaxer, which acts as a giant churn, the emulsion is broken and oil is extracted from the paste or pomace. A centrifuge removes the liquids from the solids, then in the final step, the oil is removed from the water in the separator. This fresh oil, which was on a tree that same day, then makes its way to nitrogen capped settling tanks to keep out the oxygen and light. Once the sediment settles to the bottom they’re able to slurp all the purified good oil off the top, blend it with other fresh varietals, bottle it, and get it into stores.

why extra virgin olive oil is so healthy, pouring olive oil
Image: via Unsplash user

What are the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil?

Research shows that the healthy fat profile of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, along with other minor components (such as antioxidants and vitamin E) are mainly responsible for the health benefits. It is really important to choose a fresh, antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil, to make sure you are reaping the health benefits. Think of it like fruit juice: a juice won’t be good for you if it has gone off or has been made with rotten fruit. Extra virgin olive oil has a long list of well-evidenced health benefits as an individual food and also as the main cooking medium in the Mediterranean diet. There are a handful of main health benefits to pay attention to in EVOO.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil is packed with bioactive compounds known as Biophenols/polyphenols. These biophenols are responsible for the unique taste of EVOO and provide the body with a potent source of free radical fighting antioxidants.
  • There is an abundance of research showing that EVOO as part of the Mediterranean diet is good for heart health. The FDA even allows a health claim on olive oils based on their health monounsaturated fat profile. In the words of Mary Flynn, Associate Professor Mary Flynn, Brown University, “No other food comes close to EVOO for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease.”
  • EVOO is also one of the only foods to contain high levels of healthy compound squalene. Squalene is a natural antioxidant that is used in cosmetic and personal care, a health supplement, and pharmaceutical channels. It has been associated with a variety of health benefits mainly associated with heart health and cholesterol health.
  • Cooking with EVOO enables and encourages a diet rich in vegetables, making a plant predominate diet enjoyable and sustainable.

Do you still get the health benefits of olive oil if you use it as cooking oil?

It’s a common misconception that you shouldn’t be cooking with extra virgin olive oil. There’s a lack of scientific evidence to back up this claim. Evidence backs the fact that EVOO is an extremely stable and suitable for all types of cooking – BBQ, sautéing, deep-frying, shallow frying and oven backing. When you cook with extra virgin olive oil it actually has the ability to enhance healthy attributes of other ingredients. Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) are better absorbed by the body when cooked in EVOO. EVOO also helps with the absorption of some key nutrients in vegetables such as kale, broccoli, tomatoes, and carrots. A high-quality EVOO will have a high smoke point, lending itself to any application. We do have to keep in mind that the smoke point is not the best predictor of an oil’s performance. Oxidative stability is a much better gauge.
Oxidative stability measures the performance of oil when heated over periods of time. New research proves that EVOO is one of the safest and most stable oils to cook with. In this research, seed oils were found to be the least stable and produced the highest level of polar compounds when heated. Polar compounds are a by-product when oil is exposed to heat and some of them are proven to be detrimental to health and linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

olive oil health benefits, cobram estate olive oil
Image: Cobram Estate

What are some of your favorite things to cook with extra virgin olive oil?

I love the flavor or brassicas, especially broccolini or Brussel sprouts, heavily caramelized/fried in EVOO. Veggies or hearty greens marinated in EVOO then grilled over the fire finished with flakey salt and a squeeze of lemon can be decadent.  A nice fatty, grilled steak finished with a drizzle of a robust, pepper oil is perfection. My daily favorite is a couple of eggs fried in an excess of EVOO. I use EVOO instead of butter on my toast afterward.

What are some of your favorite EVOOs?

My go-to is obviously Cobram Estate. Their commitment to quality is like none other and the flavors are green, fruity and delicious. The fact they’re vertically integrated allows them to introduce some of the world’s best EVOO to the market at a reasonable price. They’ve also got a range for all applications and occasions. EVOO is like wine, you generally want more than one in your cupboard! I like to use a few fresh single varietals during harvest time in either California or Australia. It depends on when I can get my hands on them. I think my favorite cultivar is Coratina, prized for its robust and pungent flavors. Extremely fresh olive oil is really like nothing else.

What do you look for in an EVOO?

A good extra virgin olive oil should smell fresh, remind you of something green, and leave your mouth feeling clean, not greasy. If your olive oil is greasy and smells like a jar of olives, it is not an extra virgin! The tickle in the back of the throat you may experience in a good oil comes from the antioxidants, so follow that feeling. Some aren’t a fan of pungent or “peppery” oils, but you wouldn’t be a fan of a straight shot of black pepper either, yet we know it has an important place in our kitchen. Look for a single source and a single harvest date on the bottle.

olive oil health benefits, cobram estate olive oil
Image: Cobram Estate

While you’re here, check out this recipe for a simple, easy to make grilled halloumi salad

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