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Rich in flavor and fine aroma, olive oil is present in almost all Mediterranean dishes. The fruit of the olive tree with the characteristic silver-green leaves, a blessed product with numerous unique properties, olive oil is one of the most precious treasures of the Greek land, yet it’s a treasure that you can have at your every-day table.
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The Mediterranean diet expresses a holistic lifestyle approach. It is all about quality food, social interaction, proper exercise and life outdoors, in the sunlight. The Mediterranean diet is rightfully considered one of the healthiest on the planet. For thousands of years, the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast combined light and tasty meals with intense physical activity.
The Mediterranean diet is based on ingredients of natural origin and therefore meets our needs in basic nutrients. The food categories included in the Mediterranean nutrition pyramid for every meal make our daily diet nutritionally complete and balanced. Most of the ingredients are fresh, therefore seasonal, and the meals are easy to prepare. Fried food, saturated fat, sodium, sweets and meat have limited presence in the pyramid. The basic natural foods to be included are: vegetables, fruit, pulses, wholemeal cereals, dried nuts, olives, olive oil, cheese, yogurt, fish, poultry, eggs and wine. Those food categories are at the base of the nutrition plan and provide us with thousands of microminerals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibers that “work” together in order to protect us from chronic diseases.
More specifically, the Mediterranean diet suggests:
- Cereals and cereal-based products (rice, pasta, bread, etc.). Low in fat, they provide energy. They promote intestinal health and decrease cholesterol levels.
- Fruit and vegetables. A good source of antioxidants and multiple vitamins. They protect us from cardiovascular conditions and various forms of cancer.
- Pulses and dried nuts. Extremely rich in plant fibers and vitamins. Body energy suppliers.
- Olive Oil. Rich in antioxidants and mono-unsaturated fatty acids. It is considered the basis of the mediterranean diet. It protects us from coronary heart disease, as it decreases “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels.
- Dairy products. An excellent sourceof calcium. They help keep bone mass at high levels.
A few times a week:
- Fish. They contain omega3 fatty acids.
- Poultry. They provide us with proteins of high nutritional value and iron.
- Eggs. Rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals.
- Sweets. They supply the human body with simple carbs. They provide immediately usable energy.
A few times a month:
- Meat. It contains valuable proteins, iron and vitamins.
A number of studies continue to prove that the consumption of food that is rich in fibers and healthy fat, benefits and creates a protective shield for our organism. According to tests, those who adopt the mediterranean diet are protected from:
- Heart conditions (by keeping triglycerids, blood sugar and arterial pressure to normal levels)
- metabolic syndrome
- certain forms of cancer
- type 2 diabetes
- dementia or Alzheimer’s
Throughout history, olive oil has been widely used as a medicine and as a basic ingredient in cosmetics. In the Hippocratic Code we encounter more than sixty pharmaceutical uses of olive oil, the most prominent being the prevention and treatment of skin diseases. Doctors and scientists of antiquity often praised its therapeutic properties. Among them Dioskouridids, considered the greatest pharmacist of ancient times, who noted and classified olive oil among the most important pharmaceutical substances.
Today more than ever, olive oil is celebrated for its beneficial properties, which have been established scientifically, through extensive research. Its anti-cancer action, its contribution to bone strengthening and to blood pressure and insulin levels regulation are now indisputable. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) especially, contains one extra phenol product, oleocanthal. This substance’s analgesic and anti-inflammatory action is comparable to the one attributed to lab-produced medicines. Based on on-going research, several scientists hope that EVOO can contribute to the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Further to its medicinal uses and due to its moisturizing, antioxidant, reconstructive and conditioning properties, olive oil has gained a distinct position as a valuable cosmetics product. It has antiseptic properties and can prove to be particularly effective for many different uses. It is a completely natural product, hypo-allergic and a naturally strong antioxidant. It contains the beneficial vitamins A and E. It helps revitalize, restore and even reconstruct skin that has been damaged by sunlight or environmental pollution.The antioxidants contained in olive oil are a natural anti-age “superweapon” even when applied to face, body or hair directly, without any previous processing.
The olive tree is one of the oldest trees to offer its fruit to mankind. The history of its cultivation and the extraction of its juice, the olive oil,is deeply ingrained in the culture of the peoples of the Mediterranean.
Several historians place its origin in Mesopotamia of the 3rd millennium BC, in Syria and the oblong valleys between ancient Tyrοs and Mount Lebanon. Other historians mention that the olive tree is indigenous to the Mediterranean basin and that the wild olive tree comes from Ancient Greece and Asia Minor.
The location of the first oil mill is considered to be at Clazomenae of Ionia. Other sources note that the oldest oil mill was uncovered by Deffner on the plateau of Methana and dates back to the 4th millennium BC. Archaeological findings, stone mortars and presses used for the extraction of olive oil found at the Minoan palaces of Crete reveal the multifaceted role of olive oil in the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak during the period between 2000 and 1450 BC. Archaeological research conducted in the Cyclades unearthed fossils of olive leaves, estimated to be 50,000 to 60,000 years old. The syllabaries of Linear B discovered at Ancient Pylos feature ideograms for the olive tree and olive oil.
Ever since prehistoric times, olive oil has been used to address several needs. During the Homeric age, olive oil was mainly used for anointing rather than cooking or lighting. In later years, olive oil is used as food, medicine, a cosmetic product, lighting fuel as well as an anointing substance in rituals of various religions and cultures.
For the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the olive tree has always been a sacred symbol and often features in the myths of Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. The city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena, who offered the olive tree as a gift to the Greeks. This gift -felt to represent peace and wisdom- was chosen by the city’s inhabitants over the horse of Poseidon, a fast and proud animal, which, however, was considered a symbol of war. The goddess Athena planted that first olive tree growth on a rocky hill, the Acropolis, and the olive tree that can be seen today at the same place is said to have grown from the roots of the original sacred tree.
The olive tree held a special place in ancient rituals. This precious plant is considered to this day a God-given symbol of peace, protection and fertility. For ancient Greeks, the olive tree also represented the Olympic ideals and was a symbol of Victory; its branches were used to make wreaths to crown the winners of the Olympic Games. The precious juice of its fruit, the olive oil, was the prize for the winners of the famous Panathenaic Games taking place in honour of the goddess Athena. Olive oil, as well as wheat and wine, is also used today in several rituals of the Christian Orthodox religion.
Over the centuries, the olive tree features prominently in Greek and Mediterranean customs and traditions. Its medicinal uses, first discovered in ancient times, have been passed down from generation to generation and are still used as time-old, trusted remedies or are often rediscovered by science.
The olive tree dominates the Greek landscape. With its characteristic silvery green leaves, it has been a source of inspiration for every form of art, from antiquity to modern times. Its branches, its leaves and scenes from the harvesting of its fruit have adorned walls of ancient palaces, as well as ancient amphorae and vessels. They have also been the theme of well-known works of art by Greek and foreign artists such as Theophilos, Mitarakis, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse and others. Both ancient and contemporary writers and poets have praised the olive tree like no other in their work, as the most celebrated plant in the Mediterranean region.
Referred to as “liquid gold” by Homer, olive oil is bursting with an abundance of nutrients:
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids:
Represented mainly by oleic acid, mono-unsaturated fatty acids are considered “good” fat. Unlike saturated fat, they constitute an important part of a balanced diet as, instead of causing health issues, they help prevent various diseases such as cardiovascular conditions and diabetes since they tend to decrease LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels.
Studies on inhabitants of Mediterranean countries during the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as ongoing research, have demonstrated that the manifestation of diseases, such as cardiovascular conditions and certain forms of cancer, was much lower among people of the Mediterranean than Northern Europeans. Scientists attribute this to the fact that the Mediterranean diet is based on mono-unsaturated fatty acids –mainly olive oil– while the Northern European diet is based primarily on saturated fat. In addition, blood sugar levels of diabetes patients have shown a marked improvement after consuming mono-unsaturated fat acids as opposed to other forms of fatty acids (saturated, poly-unsaturated).
Vitamin E (Tocopherol):
The process of metabolism releases free radicals within the human body, which at high concentration can cause chronic diseases. Olive oil, owing its antioxidant properties to Vitamin E, helps to protect the organism’s cells and tissues from free radicals responsible for their damage.
Olive oil polyphenols are substances which contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress.
Olive oil phenols, tyrosol and hydroxytyrysol, exhibit a wide range of bioactive properties including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and vasodepressor actions.
Scientific data shows that oleocanthal –which causes the characteristic “burning” sensation in our throat when we consume extra virgin olive oil– seems to have a strong anti-inflammatory effect, similar to that of the pharmaceutical substance ibuprofen. American researchers have also concluded that oleocanthal, found in extra virgin olive oil, can decrease the chances of manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease. Oleovropin, another phenolic compound with antioxidant action, is what gives olive oil its anti-hypertension, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and digestive properties.
EVOO is produced without chemical processing which preserves its nutritional value, while ensuring its quality characteristics (acidity lower than 0.8) and organoleptic properties (colour, taste and strong fruity flavour). This is what distinguishes it as a product of superior quality.
Acidity is one of the indices for the assessment and ranking of an olive oil produce; it represents the percentage of free fatty acids in its composition and constitutes one of the basic criteria for determining the quality of olive oil. The lower the acidity, the higher the quality of olive oil. High acidity olive oil is more easily and quickly degraded than low acidity olive oil. It also features a harsher and unpleasant aftertaste.
The various factors for increased acidity include:
- The harvesting and storing method of the fruit, as well as its stage of ripening at harvest time.
- The stacking of the fruit in big heaps and its long term storage before pressing.
By using standardised olive oil, the consumer can be sure of the product’s quality and safety as:
- Production is controlled, since it needs to meet specific quality standards according to EU legislation.
- Buying a branded product allows the consumer access to information about the person legally responsible for the purchased product.
- The consumer can be sure there is no adulteration with other seed oils, water or olive oil from previous years, since the product’s identity can be determined via chemical analysis.
- The storage and transport conditions of the product purchased can be checked.
- All the necessary information about the olive oil type, origin and acidity is indicated on the packaging, as is legally required, as opposed to bulk product.
Many olive oils are labeled as “cold extraction” or “cold pressing” products, which means that the pressing and beating of the fruit in the mill is carried out at a temperature below 27°C (80°F).
Pressing and beating temperature is crucial because of its effect on olive oil quality. High temperature damages the flavours of olive oil, as well as many of its nutrients such as polyphenols, antioxidants and vitamins. It increases its acidity level, thus resulting to olive oil of lower quality. In particular, when exceeding 28°C, the concentration in polyphenols is reduced, as they become more soluble in water and are disposed of along with the mill water waste.
By using “cold extraction” olive oil, we ensure:
- The preservation of its nutrients
- Its low natural acidity
Certain olive oils can have a strong bitter taste and cause a burning sensation in the throat. What few people know, however, is that often, this suggests a feature of superior quality. According to laboratory research in universities around the world, this pungent and bitter taste is caused by certain substances called “phenols”, which are related to a number of extremely beneficial properties in olive oil.
Phenols are natural antioxidants that are found in olive oil in substantial quantities. Their existence significantly enhances the resistance of olive oil against oxidation which is caused from contact with air or light. Therefore, proper storage conditions guarantee longer product life, while avoiding rancidity.
In other words, when olive oil has a bitter and pungent taste, it means that it has been extracted from olives not overly ripe (of green-yellowish-purple colour), which are properly harvested, promptly pressed at a maximum temperature of 27 °C, and correctly stored.
This is olive oil produced from olive groves that have been cultivated according to organic farming principles.
Organic farming involves the use of conventional and eco-friendly means for the prevention of olive tree diseases, as well as for fertilization. Specific practices are applied concerning the set-up, orientation and pruning of the orchard trees.
In order to confirm the product’s organic profile, its label must necessarily feature its approval and certification number issued after official inspection by certification bodies such as DIO, BIO HELLAS, etc.
According to scientific analysis, olive oil is by far the best oil for cooking and frying, since, due to its special chemical composition, it is much healthier and much more resistant to high temperatures than any other kind of oil. Vegetable oils (seed oils) used in cooking are the outcome of pressing or extraction from oil seeds via solvents, whereas olive oil is extracted from olive fruits through natural processing at temperatures that do not damage its properties. In other words, olive oil is fruit juice while seed oil is fat.
Olive oil is the safest solution for cooking and, undoubtedly, for frying. Its antioxidant components make it very resistant to high temperatures, as they prevent the oil from breaking down into other substances that our harmful to the human organism. Consequently, it retains its composition at high temperatures (200 °C) whereas the rest of the seed oils are decomposed at 170 °C. Choosing extra virgin olive oil makes up for healthy cooking. Frying or cooking time (from the moment we add olive oil) should be brief and the temperature should not exceed 180 °C. Ideally the oil should not be reused after frying.
This is olive oil that has gone through industrial processing, during which many of its nutrients are lost. Refined olive oil comes from oils that could be considered inedible. It is produced from damaged olives or olives stored under poor conditions in terms of temperature etc. After chemical treatment, this oil can be sold as edible.
This treatment involves the use of sodium hydroxide add-ons (which are later removed) in order to limit the increased concentration of free fatty acids and other substances are used to improve the oil’s colour. The process also involves heating the oil at a high temperature (28 °C), in an oxygen free environment, in order to allow odours to evaporate. Once refined, the oil is considered ready for consumption. If mixed afterwards with extra virgin oil, the end result is known as “Coupe Olive Oil”.
As a natural product olive oil stands out for its exceptional flavour, pleasant taste and great nutritional and biological value. Thanks to those characteristics, it has managed to withstand fierce competition with other vegetable oils (seed oils) which are offered at lower prices, especially in olive oil producing countries.
However, apart from competition with seed oils, the olive oil has to deal with organized adulteration, mainly at the stage of distribution. In terms of its basic characteristics, olive oil looks like other vegetable oils and therefore it is possible for it to be adulterated without this being noticed by the consumer. More specifically, small amounts of oil impurities are very difficult to detect, even by experienced scientists who conduct organoleptic tests. The types of olive oil which have been used up to now for olive oil adulteration include refined olive oil, olive residue oil, corn oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, soya bean oil and poppy seed oil.
On many occasions, an experienced taster is able to suspect signs of adulteration and ask for further analysis. Laboratory tests can clearly and accurately determine the profile of an olive oil, by using ultraviolet spectrometry to calculate the refractive index, specific weight, iodine value as well as certain other reactive dyes etc.
Olive oil is characterized by its sensitivity mainly to three factors: air, heat and light. These factors are responsible for the oxidation of olive oil, known as rancidity.
In order to preserve olive oil exactly in the state we collect it from the oil mill, we must store it in the proper containers (made of dark glass, stainless steel or galvanized), which must be filled to the top so not to allow air in. The containers must be kept in a dark and cool place (of up to 200 °C temperature).
When we start consuming olive oil from a specific container, the oil level starts dropping, thus allowing more and more oxygen inside; as a result, the olive oil deteriorates faster. Therefore, it is recommended, that we purchase and store olive oil in small containers in order for it to maintain its taste and its beneficial properties.
The preservation period of olive oil depends on whether or not the above storing conditions are met. Also, the olive oil produced from early harvest is recommended, as it lasts longer due to its high concentration in polyphenols – the antioxidant substances which give it its slightly bitter taste and pungent
When we taste good quality olive oil, the first thing we experience is a pleasant flavour and then a slight bitterness and a burning sensation in our throat. If the olive oil is produced from ripe olives, then this burning sensation is not so intense.
Being aware of all the above, we can immediately appreciate the nice, soft burning “tickle” that good quality olive oil brings to the palate and distinguish it from the sharp, acid taste we get from rancid olive oil. Rancidity is an indication of poor quality olive oil. Moreover, an unpleasant odour in olive oil – a stale-like smell, for instance – is proof of olive oil produced in previous years.
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