Do we need an alternative to olive oil?

Olive oil has long been championed as one of the healthiest oils around. And rightly so. It contains high levels of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, which has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The phytonutrients in olives are also powerful antioxidants, helping to protect the cells in our bodies from damage. However it may not be the best oil for all scenarios.

Olive oil is unique in that it isn’t derived from a vegetable, nut or animal, but a fruit. Olives are the fruit of olive trees and belong to the same family as peaches and cherries, stone fruits. Olive oil is produced by pressing olives. Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the olives and has the most delicate flavour and is the most nutrient dense. Virgin olive oil comes from the second pressing of the olives. Unlike extra virgin and virgin olive oil which are extracted from olives manually, refined olive oil is extracted from the olives chemically. Light olive oil has been heavily refined, is pale in colour and with little taste. Pure olive oil is actually a mixture of refined and virgin olive oils.

When you heat an oil, changes occur in its chemical structure and it starts to break down, eventually forming harmful trans fats and free radicals. The point at which these changes start to happen is described as the oil’s smoke point. Different oils have different smoke points. Some oils will start to smoke at just over 100°C; others are stable until 350°C. With olive oil, the smoke point depends on how much processing has occurred. Extra virgin olive oil – the least processed – has the lowest smoke point of all the olive oils and therefore should not be used for high temperature cooking like frying.

For frying and high temperature cooking, use a more stable oil such as extra virgin coconut oil or pure butter. Coconut oil is rich in a medium chain fatty acid called lauric acid. Medium chain fatty acids are more easily digested than the long chain fatty acids found in vegetable oil. They don’t enter the cholesterol cycle, and aren’t deposited in fat cells either. Coconut also has anti-inflammatory properties and can help with control of blood sugar levels. And if you aren’t that keen on the flavour of coconut, don’t worry. Coconut oil has a very mild flavour that is barely noticeable once cooked. It is solid at room temperature and should be stored in the fridge.

In order to benefit from the many healthy nutrients in extra virgin olive oil, it should be used ‘cold’. Dress your salads in it, dip your ciabatta in it, but don’t fry your pancakes in it.

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