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How to Maximize the Health Benefits of Olive Oil

Chances are high you use olive oil regularly, but do you know how to best reap its health benefits? Recent studies confirm the numerous benefits of a Mediterranean diet, a diet focused on healthy fats largely sourced from olive oil. To find out how to get the most from this prized oil, I sat down with Laurent Halasz, olive oil expert and the owner of Fig and Olive, the celebrated Mediterranean and French Riviera-inspired eatery with locations in New York and Los Angeles (where the president recently dined!) to get the scoop.

Better Than Butter
Laurent suggests using olive oil instead of butter while cooking, especially as a finishing step by drizzling the oil on your dish. Drizzle it on everything, even on the most unexpected choices such as desserts — I can vouch that it's surprisingly delicious mixed with sweets!

Taste Trumps Color
When asked whether flavor or color matters more for identifying healthful oils, he notes that the health benefit of the oil comes from the level of natural antioxidants, or polyphenols. Laurent explains that "a high polyphenol content can be identified when we taste the olive oil and it creates an assertive, peppery astringency in the back of the throat and makes us cough. A bitter, unpleasant or flat olive oil usually indicates an oil that has oxidized and has low antioxidant content."

Keep on reading to learn more about olive oil.

Don't Smoke It
It's important not to heat olive oil (or any cooking oil) over its smoke point, the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down, the oil smokes or burns, and gives the oil (and food) an unpleasant taste. Olive oil begins to lose its benefits and unique flavor when it starts to smoke. According to the International Olive Oil Council, olive oil stands up well to high temperatures, with a smoke point of 410ºF (210ºC). Laurent is quick to note that the higher the quality and level of polyphenols of the olive oil, the higher the possible cooking temperature.

Be Extra Virgin
The finest quality olive oil on the market containing the highest level of antioxidants is first, cold-pressed extra virgin produced largely in Spain. Meaning that the oil was not heated over a certain temperature during processing and that the olives were crushed exactly on time — when ripe but not too ripe. These specifications ensure that the oil retains more nutrients and has undergone less processing, making it more pure. An olive oil must be under one percent acidity and have no flavor defects to be labeled extra virgin. To get the greatest health benefit from olive oil, extra virgin should be your only choice. Other types of olive oils are generally poor quality and have been heavily refined to improve flavor. This refining process also greatly reduces the health benefits of the oil.

Store in the Dark
Laurent advises storing olive oil in a cool, dark place and that the quality, health benefits, and taste of the olive oil deteriorates over time making it preferable to consume the oil within 12-18 months of harvest. Since most grocery store bottles don’t include the time of harvest on their labels, pay close attention to the expiration and consume the oil before that date.

Handled With Care
So what's the verdict on organic vs. nonorganic? Laurent says that "organic is a plus but many nonorganic olive oils are also very natural especially from remote parts of Spain, Greece and Sicily, which are far from pollution and the trees are handled with great care."

While many olive oil labels don't disclose the acidity, polyphenol count, or the harvest date, Laurent urges us all to trust our palates. He is a firm believer in "being able to taste various flavors of olive oil from ripe fruit and sweet, to green fruit, to peppery and assertive olive oil" — this is your best tool on your quest for a high quality, healthful oil!

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