The Basics of Olive Oil

Olives were first cultivated in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean region, moving westward over the millennia. For thousands of years, the mystique of olive oil has permeated Mediterranean culture; ancient Greeks and Romans appreciated its mystical and medicinal properties. Today, people the world over appreciate this nectar of the olive for its versatility—as a cooking and baking ingredient; a heart-healthy alternative to other types of oils, butter or margarine; and a flavorful dressing or topping for vegetables, salads and other dishes.

You may already use olive oil in your restaurant in one or more of these roles. If not, you should consider enhancing your offerings with this tasty, healthy option. In fact, your patrons will soon be asking for it, if they aren’t already. And, while many consumers are choosing to limit their consumption of “bad” fats, some cities and states are taking away the option altogether: For example, New York banned use of trans fats in restaurant food preparation in 2007, and California restaurants must stop using trans fats in cooking by 2010.

This trend toward making restaurant fare healthier makes olive oil—low in saturated fat and trans fat-free—an even more attractive option for the foodservice professional.

Related: How Olive Oils Are Graded

Healthy Possibilities
Olive oil can be substituted seamlessly for a variety of other oils traditionally used for cooking and baking, while enhancing the taste and texture of foods. It can be used for sautéing and stir-frying; basted on meats, fish, poultry and vegetables for grilling; or used as a salad dressing. People have discovered the great taste and versatility of olive oil: Americans spend more money on olive oil than any other cooking oil, with more than 35 million American households using olive oil in a variety of ways.

Though great taste and easy adaptability to a variety of uses and recipes are certainly reasons for olive oil’s popularity, its heart-healthy qualities cannot be ignored. Every day, people are discovering the naturally healthy attributes of olive oil, and new findings about its health properties are being discovered. You probably know that olive oil is a key component of a Mediterranean-style diet, which is heavy on fruits and vegetables and light on red meat; this diet is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim about the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil, which said, in part, that scientific evidence suggested eating about two tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, due to its monounsaturated fat content.

this is a beauty shot of olive oil with pesto spaghetti

Olive oil is one of the best sources of monounsaturated fats, which, according to the American Heart Association, can have a beneficial effect on health when eaten in moderation and used to replace saturated fats or trans fats. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to help reduce the level of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol that can cause deposits on the walls of arteries and other blood vessels, reducing their capacity and flexibility. Monounsaturated fats also provide nutrients that help develop and maintain cells, and are high in antioxidant-rich vitamin E.

Quality Assurance
While olive oil is a premium product, some skeptics question whether all products called olive oil are 100% authentic. The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) works to assure buyers of olive oil’s authenticity and quality through three quality control programs in which olive oils sold in the United States and Canada are tested and their labels reviewed for accuracy.

In early 2008, the association introduced its Olive Oil Seal Program, which allows manufacturers and importers to display the NAOOA “certified quality” seal on products that have met standards established by the International Olive Council (IOC) for olive oil. The IOC is recognized worldwide as the standard-setting body for the olive oil industry.

As a garnish, a healthier substitute, or as a cooking or baking ingredient, olive oil can add new, lighter life to the dishes you serve. You’re sure to find it not only offers opportunities for you to stretch your culinary talents but to have a positive impact on the health of your customers—and all with great taste and versatility. That’s a recipe that’s hard to beat.

This article, written by by Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association, has been adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the May 2009 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.