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When should I use oils other than olive oil?
I have a question I'm having a hard time getting answers to. I use olive oil for almost everything, having been raised Italian. But I'm trying to diversify (assuming that this is a good thing, as with other food groups) and also, there are times when olive oil just isn't the right choice, such as with stir fries. As someone who knows nutrition AND good taste, what are some oils that you think would be good to use AND still be great for cooking?

Not just a monounsaturated fat anymore
I wrote yesterday about the effect of polyphenols in fruit juices on the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Polyphenols aren't just in fruit juices, however. Another excellent source of polyphenols is virgin olive oils, the oils from the first pressing of olives. The heart-healthy effects of the olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet has often been attributed to its being a monounsaturated fat, but researchers in Europe theorized that they might be the polyphenols in the olive oil (Ann Intern Med 2006; 145(5): 333-341).

Mediterranean Diet vs. American Heart Association Diet
A group of researchers in Spain compared a Mediterranean style diet to a low-fat American Heart Association (AHA) type diet, showing a significant reduction in blood pressure, cholesterol, fasting blood sugar and other markers of inflammation associated with heart disease.


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Some Olive Oils are Better For You Than Others

One of the current theories regarding heart disease is that it's at least partially caused by a chronic level of low-grade inflammation in the body. Olive oil, as part of the style of eating known as the Mediterranean Diet, is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. This is often attributed to olive oil's high amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids.

It's not just the monounsaturated fatty acids that are the healthy component of olive oil, however: it also contains high amounts of substances called phenolic compounds, which are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are known to help combat that low-grade inflammation which is suspected to contribute to heart disease.

Researchers in Barcelona, Spain, noted that virgin (unrefined) olive oils contain more phenolic compounds than refined olive oils. As part of a larger study on olive oil, twenty-eight men and women participated in a comparison of the effects of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil on the measures of inflammation in the body (Euro J Clin Nutr 2008;62(4):570-74).

The subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups in what is known as a crossover study: the participants in one group were given 50 ml of virgin olive oil every day for three weeks, while the second group were given the same amount of refined olive oil. Each three-week testing period was followed by a two-week “washout” period, during which both groups consumed refined olive oil. Then the groups switched types of olive oil and the five-week testing period was repeated. All of the subjects had their blood tested for various inflammatory markers at the beginning and end of each testing period.

They found that those who were consuming virgin olive oil instead of refined olive oil had a much lower level of inflammatory markers than those who were consuming refined olive oils.

What this means for you

We know that olive oils are better for you than other fats, and now we know that the best olive oil seems to be virgin olive oil. I love it because of its light, fruity flavor. Drizzle it on your salad with some balsamic vinegar. Delicious!

First posted: May 14, 2008