Nature’s ambrosia is good for you

Olive oil was everywhere at a recent international conference devoted to its medical benefits and commercial aspects.

olive oil 311 (photo credit: Judy Seigal Itzkovitch)
olive oil 311
(photo credit: Judy Seigal Itzkovitch)
It’s no longer just for sprinkling on your salad. With the therapeutic benefits of regular olive oil consumption well proven and the development of many new varieties to suit every taste, eating (or drinking) the sublime golden stuff is highly recommended on a daily basis – and it can be baked, fried and used as the base even for puff pastry and ice cream.
A full-day scientific and commercial conference on olive oil was held at the end of July at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel and organized by the olive-oil promotion organization Terra Olivio. Attracting some 120 people in medicine, cuisine and the olive oil industry, it included the first Mediterranean international olive oil competition, in which 189 different samples from producers in Israel and 13 other countries were judged for their taste, quality, low acidity, aroma and color.
Olive trees have grown in the Land of Israel for thousands of years, and they and their fruit are mentioned many times in the Bible. The green-and-silvery leaves have been a symbol of peace since the time of Noah, and the oil was used to anoint Israelite kings and for lighting and offerings in the Holy Temples. The trees stand along the menora in the official symbol of the State of Israel, and consuming olive oil was recommended heartily by the great Jewish sage and physician Maimonides (the Rambam) in the Middle Ages and by the Koran.
There have been ups and downs in the olive oil industry here over the millennia, said Prof. Shimon Lavee, president of the conference and an olive expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture.
Although in ancient times olives and their oil were exported westward through the Mediterranean region and long had an important influence on the local economy, during the 400 years of Turkish rule, trees were uprooted the the industry sagged.
During the British Mandate, he said, more trees were planted, but during the early years of the state, when the country was poor and overwhelmed with more pressing business, there was low profitability and a decline in production. However, the last three decades have shown a significant increase both in the number of trees and the production of oil, as well as innovation through new varieties and products. Sixty percent is grown and milled by Israeli Arabs.
The growing awareness around the world that olive oil is rich in antioxidant polyphenols that fight the unstable oxygen radicals that break down human cells and promote disease has triggered great interest, even though Spain, Italy, Greece, Argentina, the US (California) and other countries are mass producers. Israel, with its shortages of water and land, can’t compete in quantity – it produces less than 1% of the world’s olive oil and the average Israeli consumes just 2.2 kilos a year, said Lavee– but is equal in quality and ingenuity in developing new varieties for major olive oil producers abroad.
There is a great global potential for increasing the consumption of the oil, said Dr. Mercedes Albaladejo of Spain, who heads the chemistry and olive oil standards department of the International Oil Council. “It must be promoted through education of consumers so they will pay attention to the products,” she said.
The marques de Grinon, Don Carlos Falco, an agronomist who headed the international judges panel and delivered the keynote address, said he had last been here in the 1970s when he went to Tel Aviv University to study how to save water. He revealed that he brought Israeli drip irrigation to Spain. “Many don’t know that this invention that changed world agriculture came from Israel.” Although olive trees should not be overwatered, he said, drip irrigation has made possible their cultivation in dry areas, including the Negev.
Falco started with grapes for wine and found it more profitable at first, but in 2000, he turned his attention to the olive and discovered that “the key to success and profits for food industry is the scientifically proven positive relationship between any food product and health improvement – and olive oil has it.”
Nearly six decades ago, a prospective study between 1954 and 1970 that was published in the journal Circulation showed that Americans, who consumed only small amounts of olive oil, had a 98% higher rate of deaths from heart attacks then residents of Crete – who consume the largest per-capita amount in the world.
The results made a big splash, he said.
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, he added. “Many people think that fats are bad, but it is recommended that fats constitute 30% of a healthful diet; in America and other Western countries, it is 40% and too much saturated fat. In the early 1990s, the Americans and Europeans recommended polyunsaturated oils, which are cheap and easy for industry too use, but there is scientific evidence that such oils can increase the risks for some types of cancer and solidified trans fats are very dangerous to health and have already been banned in New York and California. Industry will have to change, even though monounsaturated oils are more expensive. It will be good for olive oil, which today comprises only 4% of the world vegetable oil market, and its price is not competitive with peanut, corn, sunflower and soybean oils.”
Polyphenols are at their highest level in authentic extra virgin (cold processed) olive oil, and the olives must be milled within an hour or two of picking. Manual harvesting protects the polyphenols, said Falco, even though mechanical vibration and picking is much more economic. Cutting the olives into slices protects the antioxidants and is preferable to pressing them. If fruit is harvested after the peak polyphenol period (called veraison) and has already turned black, many of the antioxidants are destroyed. They should also be picked when the temperature outside is below 10 degrees. Better technology, he said, will surely lead to the preservation of more of the polyphenols, which are very complex organic acids.
One must beware that on the world and local market, there are many “olive oils” that have been adulterated with cheap oils that offer little or no health benefits, so one should purchase supplies only from reputable stores and producers.
You can’t change your age, sex or family history, said Prof. Michael Aviram, a senior lipids researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Rappaport Institute for Research in the Medical Sciences and Rambam Medical Center. But you can reduce your level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or the “bad cholesterol”) in the coronary arteries and your risk of cardiovascular disease by exercising, eating properly and not smoking.
“Cells need cholesterol to function, and most of it is synthesized in the liver,” Aviram said. “But if this is excessive and the diet includes a large amount of unhealthful fat, LDL – delivered by the blood all over the body like a bus full of passengers – will accumulate in the vessels and create plaques that can cut the heart muscle off from its blood and oxygen supply.”
High-density lipoprotein (HDL or the “good cholesterol”) is like a small taxi that travels one way – to the liver – and knows how to break down LDL. Diet, lifestyle changes and/or medications (statins) are needed to lower LDL and raise HDL levels. But while it is now easier to lower LDL, there is still not a very effective way to raise HDL significantly, and more research is needed, he added.
He said that his lab had examined more than 100 types of fruit and vegetables and found polyphenols also in red wine and pomegranates. “Grapes and pomegranates protect themselves from solar radiation and oxygen radicals by producing polyphenols in the skins. We were first in the world to show health benefits in people of red wine and pomegranate juice. In 1994 we were the first to explain the ‘French Paradox’ in which the people of France eat saturated fats but still have a lower rate of heart attacks. This is because of their higher consumption of red wine.”
But one cannot drink an unlimited amount of wine and pomegranate juice, and olive oil has additional benefits. In 1993, his lab gave 25 milliliters of olive oil to healthy medical students for only two weeks, comparing the results with those in a control group. The researchers found dramatic, positive changes in their blood content, including a great decline in LDL.
Israel can still be prominent in the development of new foods and even therapeutic products based on the health-promoting oil. Dr. Shaul Eger, a physiologist who has been spending many years developing olive-oil based products, told the participants that he used to suffer from chronic irregular heartbeat.
Studying ancient medical texts, he decided to drink eight spoonsful of olive oil every morning and found his heartbeat returned to normal.
Eger’s company, based in Yokne’am, will soon begin the marketing of a nondairy, low-sugar chocolate spread made with olive oil; his company also makes puff pastry, burekas, lipstick that treats herpes virus and creams for diaper rash – all based on olive oil.
Chaim Spiegel, head of the food and beverage department of the Dan Hotels chain, recommended that restaurants use olive oil more for frying, baking and even making dough. “There should be a variety of olive oils with different aromas and tastes, and they can also be mixed. I anticipate the day when a person enters a restaurant and is offered an olive oil menu, just like today he is offered a wine list, and can choose among them. Oils spiced with herbs will also add customer interest,” he said.
Olive oil can be used as the last ingredient mixed into cake and even yeast dough such as focaccia, said Mickey Shemo, a pastry chef and restauranteur. “It can also be used with white chocolate and produce a wonderful aroma. We use very high quality oil; one can then eat smaller portions of it. Olive oil makes pastry moist and gives it an elastic texture.”
Olive oil smokes and burns at between 190º and 220º, said Dr.
Rani Pollack, a physician and director of the center for healthful cooking at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Optimal. Thus the temperature must be lower than that, but you can fry with it if careful. Store it in a dark bottle, he advised, and don’t reuse it.
“Even strudel dough can be made with olive oil,” he said, offering simple and tempting recipes and photos.
Itzhik Barak, the Inbal Hotel’s executive chef, told The Jerusalem Post that in recent years he has tried to introduce more olive oil into his menus – which is a good thing, as he was asked to include the healthful oil in each of the dishes offered guests the night ending the conference.
“I judge the oil by its aroma, color and taste. It must not be green, as this means unripe olives were used. Organic oils are even better. Because we have a kosher kitchen, olive oil can be an excellent replacement for butter. It’s great with fish, chicken, meat and vegetables, but it doesn’t go well with alcohol.”
Barak, who previously worked at Harrod’s in Eilat, said he always uses Israeli olive oil, as it is of high quality. “A good chef is a chemist. I travel around the world and constantly learn about chemistry and composition.”
And Barak’s dinner was an excellent performance, with more than 50 chefs producing over a dozen courses based on his recipes. There were duck, sea bass, kebab, beef filet, salads and desserts – all with olive oil. The most eyecatching was the ice cream made from a cream touched with cinnamon, put on a wood skewer and dipped in melted chocolate and then in liquid nitrogen, which turned it to ice cream in seconds. See the hotel’s Web site,, for the recipe.