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Can olive oil ever possibly be harmful?
By Syeda Amtul
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 06 - 03 - 2010

The use of good fat in our diet is constantly being advocated as a necessary foundation for our health, and almost all of us know or have been told about the numerous health benefits of consuming olive oil, but your “oil health” goes beyond just the type of oil you use. The health benefits of your oil also depend on how you use that oil, and olive oil is surprisingly, not very healthy when cooked, particularly with respect to stir-fry.
“Each type of oil has what is called a ‘smoke point'. The smoke point is the specific temperature at which the oil starts to break down, or in more technical terms, its molecular structure begins to change. These molecular changes result in changes in flavor, as well as changes in nutritional value,” explained Dr. Abdul Wani, a consultant in Emergency Medicine at Hera General Hospital in Makkah, in an interview with Saudi Gazette. “Specifically, the nutritional value of the oil starts to degrade, changing what once may have been considered an especially healthy oil into one that is unhealthy.”
He added that another important aspect of using olive oil is the quality being used. “Never use olive oil that does not taste good to you. An inferior one will leave an aftertaste. If you do the taste test and compare the “pure” to the “extra-virgin” variety, you'll understand the difference,” he stated. “When cooking with olive oil, save your extra-virgin expensive oils for salads, dressings, and vinaigrettes. You can also drizzle it over slices of crusty bread or onto open-face sandwiches. Use it on a baked potato or add it to mashed potatoes instead of butter. Extra virgin olive oil tastes great on cooked vegetables or brushed onto fish or meat before serving.”
When it comes to high-heat cooking however, olive oil loses much of its appeal. “While cooking on a high level of heat, always choose refined oils, but keep the ‘smoke point' in mind,” Dr. Wani Umm Ahmed, a nutritionist at a private hospital in Jeddah, told Saudi Gazette. “Unrefined oils are often more nutritious since the refining process removes some of the oil's nutrients, and tend to be much richer in flavor.
Many olive oil brands and varieties are available in the market offering different ‘grades' of quality depending on the amount of processing involved. There are unrefined (virgin) grades and refined grades.
The less refinement by heat and chemical treatments,the higher the quality of the oil. Virgin varieties of olive oil are believed to offer the greatest health benefits as they retain most of the nutrients from olives.” Here are some of those varieties:
• Extra virgin - this oil is the top grade of olive oil. It is made from the first ‘pressing' of good-quality olives. The oil is removed (extracted) by a traditional cold-pressing method, where no chemicals and only a small amount of heat are applied.
• Virgin - this oil is produced from the second pressing of olives or from the second-best grade of olives by cold-pressing. No chemicals are involved and very little heat is used.
• Pure - also sold as ‘pure' olive oil. This type of oil is non-virgin, commercial-grade olive oil. It is ‘pure' to the extent that it consists only of olive oil. In fact, it consists of the inferior oil that is left after the virgin oil has been removed from lower-quality olives. This oil is then refined using heat, chemical solvents, high pressure and filtration treatments. Finally, it is mixed with a small quantity of virgin olive oil to restore color and flavor.
• Light and extra light - these oils are produced from the last pressing of olives. They are more refined and of a lower quality than the other grades. There is little of the natural olive flavor and color left in these oils. Interestingly, “light” oil has the same number of calories as other olive oils but it has been altered somehow to take away most of the olive flavor.
For example, it is quite common to take a rancid oil (which I fear much of the olive oil on grocery store shelves has become) and chemically neutralize the free fatty acids causing it to meet the low acidity standards of extra-virgin oil and then - possibly - adding a bit of honest oil to give it a slight olive oil flavor. Be under no illusion that this is anywhere near as healthy as the good extra-virgin, but, is a source of monounsaturated oil to use in deep and stir fry”,” remarked Dr. Umm Ahmed. Research suggests that olive oil may play an integral role in lowering the risk of several types of cancers, including breast, colon, lung, ovarian and skin cancers. Chemical compounds specific to olive oil, known as phenolics, appear to combat the build-up of free radicals in the body and may be able to reduce oxidative damage to DNA. A number of studies have shown that olive oil may also help reduce or manage blood pressure, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis and immune function, and works its best when used in its raw form.
“For those of us who just love olive oil, here's something of a solution: To cook with olive oil, just don't let it get ‘smoking hot' and don't add the oil to the pan by itself. If you are cooking up a big batch of onions for example, drizzle olive oil on top of the chopped veggies. It still adds flavor, but doesn't morph into a chemically inferior product,” explained Dr. Umm Ahmed. “When using the grill, get the pan piping hot, add the roll or piece of meat and then a drizzle of olive oil. Then turn the pan off, and the olive oil is just hot enough to grill the food and give it its flavor, but it doesn't get so hot that it smokes.”
In fact, each type of oil should be used with the correct cooking method; one that is most appropriate to its individual smoke point and heat tolerance level.

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