Up Close & Edible: Olive Oil

When you talk about good fats, you can't get much better than the fats found in olive oil.
In the 1960s, it was found that folks in Crete lived long lives because they had much lower rates of stroke, heart disease and certain cancers. Researchers noted that heart-disease risk was much lower for people throughout the Mediterranean region, despite the high intake of monounsaturated fats found in olive oil. And so began the research into the "Mediterranean diet."

Today, we know that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels. In fact, some research shows that the risk of a fatal heart attack is cut in half after two to four years of being on the Mediterranean diet, which also includes loads of fruits and vegetables and other good-for-you foods like grains. If you're worried about stomach fat, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, grab some olive oil. Some studies show that olive oil may actually help redistribute body fat, helping to rid us of our jelly bellies. The science is so overwhelming that the FDA allows olive oil manufacturers to place a health claim on bottles linking olive oil to reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

But research, published in the journal Nature, shows olive oil is more than just heart healthy. Scientists from the Monell Chemical Research Center in Philadelphia discovered that olive oil contains a compound that has the same molecular action as ibuprofen, the widely used painkiller. And that means that olive oil may offer the same anti-inflammatory properties as ibuprofen, as well as some of its other benefits, including a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, certain cancers and Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg Medical School showed in a series of laboratory experiments on breast-cancer cells that the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, found in olive oil, dramatically cuts the levels of a cancer-promoting gene called Her-2/neu while boosting the effectiveness of treatment. High levels of the gene occur in more than a fifth of breast-cancer patients and are linked with highly aggressive tumors.

About 90 percent of the world's olive oil comes from the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Choosing the best one depends on your taste buds. Depending on the processing involved, olive oil is usually categorized as: extra virgin (considered top-shelf since it is from the first pressing of olives); virgin (the second pressing); pure (minimally processed), and extra light (heavily processed).