Add This Life-Enhancing Elixir to Your Diet

Would you like a shot of olive oil with your morning cup of Joe?

If you get your coffee at Starbucks, you might get one.

Last week, Starbucks announced that it would add a spoonful of olive oil to its new Oleato line of drinks. Right now, it's only available at select locations in Italy, but the company plans to roll out the drinks globally throughout the year.

Of course, this doesn't mean the sugar-filled drinks popular at Starbucks are healthy, but longtime readers know I'm a huge fan of olive oil.

If you want to eat healthy, it's as simple as following the Mediterranean way of eating. The Mediterranean diet consistently tops the charts as one of the best ways to eat. Eating in this fashion offers many health benefits. And one big reason for that is one of its major components – extra-virgin olive oil.

So today, we're going to talk a bit about olive oil and answer a few questions that we've gotten recently via e-mail ([email protected]). If you're not thinking about how to incorporate olive oil into your next meal by the time you finish reading this, you should be. Because I can't think of any good reason why someone would willingly choose not to eat this life-enhancing elixir.

Q: I'd like to read an update on olive oil. We've been enjoying California Olive Ranch's oil ever since your recommendation a few years ago. – A.R.

A: Thanks for your e-mail, A.R. We are happy to report that researchers are still uncovering the many benefits of regularly eating olive oil. Some of those benefits include:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Preventing cholesterol buildup in your blood vessels
  • Protecting you from chronic diseases, like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes
  • Reducing your risk of having a stroke
  • Promoting weight loss
  • Protecting against neurogenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's

And a new Italian study that was published last month found that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids ("PUFAs," which, along with omega-6 fatty acids, make up about 11% of the total fat content in olive oil) helped to restore the integrity of the mucus barrier in the guts of mice.

Your gut barrier allows you to absorb essential nutrients from your food, keep harmful materials from being absorbed (like bacteria), and recognize (as well as neutralize) potential threats to your immune system. So, simply by eating olive oil, you will help fortify and improve some of the essential functions of your gut.

Q: You mention olive oil is good for you. Is there a difference in olive oils? I went to the local specialty shop that has all kinds of olive oil. They say their olive oil is better than the ones you buy in the grocery store. Is this true? Are there some oils that are better than others? – D.D.

A: A quick stroll through your grocery store will reveal a few different types of olive oil. The differences are in the pressing and refinement processes.

Extra virgin is the highest-quality olive oil and uses no chemicals in the pressing process. It should also be cold pressed because higher temperatures affect the quality of the oil. Extra-virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids ("MUFAs," which – like PUFAs – are another healthy form of fat that promotes cardiovascular health and provides vital nutrients) and the most antioxidants. It's the type we recommend adding to your diet.

Other types include virgin (which has a higher acidity due to riper olives), pure (a mix of virgin and refined olive oils), and light (which refers to the lighter taste).

One concern people have when cooking with olive oil is its high "smoke point." That's the temperature at which your oil starts sending up bluish smoke. The smoke is a breakdown of the fats in the oil into glycerol, which is then broken down further into poisonous acrolein. Acrolein not only irritates the lungs, but it can also trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems.

Regular olive oil (not extra virgin) doesn't reach that smoke point until 406 degrees Fahrenheit (although some research puts this temperature a bit higher or lower). Cooks tend to fry at about 356 degrees, so remember to avoid going higher than 400 degrees. This will help you avoid the fumes.

Do what I do to enjoy olive oil safely. Use extra-virgin oil for dipping and in salad dressings. You can easily replace butter or margarine (stop margarine use immediately) with olive oil, and I like to use it as a potato topper. Use refined olive oil (the light stuff) or a blend of the two for general cooking. Most of all, be sure to heat your pans up slowly and to have proper ventilation for the fumes – run your oven exhaust and crack a window.

And keep in mind, a specialty shop will always tell you their stuff is better than the competition. They may be right, but they may be wrong... Here are a few key things to look for in a good olive oil:

  • Read the label – Some of the cheaper brands claim to be from Italy, but if you look at the back of the bottle, the label probably lists several countries where the olives might be from.
  • Glass is best – If the oil experienced problems when it shipped (including mishandling or exposure to heat), the plastic could leach chemicals into the oil.
  • Buy dark bottles – Choose an oil in a glass bottle that is not clear. Clear bottles allow too much light to affect the oil.

Q: Hi Doc. I wanted to add extra virgin olive oil to my diet but I'm not a salad guy and I do my cooking on a countertop convection grill which I spray with olive oil. I know you recommend bottled oil, so is it ok to just take a couple of tablespoons straight from the bottle every day? – J.W.

A: Thanks for your question, J.W. You can definitely slurp down a few teaspoons or tablespoons of olive oil, but it may not be a very pleasant experience. Olive oil is very thick, and it will coat your mouth and throat on the way down. And the strong flavor isn't for everyone, especially when it's on its own.

I'd suggest getting an oil pump sprayer (like this one, which is only $12.99. This way, you can enjoy a less-processed form of the good stuff – i.e., free from butane and propane propellants.

So ditch your regular cooking spray and coat your countertop convection grill with something healthier and more delicious. I use a pump sprayer and find it lovely. I typically use olive oil in place of all other add-on fats (like butter or other types of oil, for instance). And for me, a few sprays often isn't enough. Be generous with this health-benefiting liquid gold.

Keep sending us your questions, folks. We love hearing from you. If there's something you'd like us to write about, let us know with an e-mail to [email protected].

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 28, 2023