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Olive Oil and You
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The magic charm of the Mediterranean draws million of visitors each year. Part of the attraction is the delicious food served in the region; breads, vegetable dishes, herbal seasonings, and pasta prepared with the greenish-gold, virgin olive oil. There is a large variety of olives, each possessing its own unique fruity flavor, which in turn produce oils with a wide range of flavors. The olive oil used here in the United States comes largely from Italy and Spain.

Southern Europeans who live in the Mediterranean have much lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes than Northern Europeans and Americans. One of the reasons for this advantage is the predominant use of olive oil in the Mediterranean diet rather than fats of animal origin. Olive oil has a composition similar to avocado oil, and is largely composed of monounsaturated fat. In addition, virgin olive oil has a high level of antioxidant phenolics that enables the consumer to enjoy lower blood cholesterol levels and a lower risk of breast and bowel cancer.

There are additional advantages from using olive oil. Blood glucose levels are better controlled and HDL cholesterol (the "good cholesterol") levels are not decreased as with many plant oils. Some experiments suggest that extra virgin olive oil may also lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of blood clots. Renaud has reported that French patients who survived a heart attack had a reduced risk of a second heart attack when fed an olive oil-rich diet.

Oil for Breakfast

Olive oil tends to be more expensive than other vegetable oils because of the labor intensive method of harvesting the crop. Typically, farmers avoid using chemicals to assist in the harvesting process because of the need for a quality product that is environmentally acceptable to the consumer. Virgin olive oil is considered as a pure fruit juice by the southern Europeans and many farmers in Greece consume a wine glass of olive oil for breakfast.

California produces almost all of the olives that are grown in the United States, and these are used to produce canned olives. While most of the calories in an olive come from fat, four ripe olives contain only 15 calories. Green olives, which are picked in the fall before they reach maturation have less than half the calories of the black mature olives.

The increased life expectancy and low rates of chronic diseases among the southern Europeans may be due in part to their simple, physically active lifestyle, and the unique Mediterranean diet that includes a regular use of olive oil.

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By Winston J. Craig, R.D. Copyright © 2006 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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