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The new/old way to get your daily dose of olive oil

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Olive oil is a trendy fat that’s been heralded as a way to ward off heart disease, frequently as a part of a larger dietary pattern known as the Mediterranean diet. A recent Cochrane review concluded that the Mediterranean diet appears to reduce some heart disease risk factors.  This age-old diet typically encourages plentiful use of olive oil in cooking, as well as lots of fruits, veggies and lean meats.

How Much?

“Plentiful” isn’t very specific. How much olive oil do I need? The American Heart Association doesn’t give any specific recommendations for olive oil, so I decided to see what researchers studying Mediterranean diet and heart disease tell their subjects.

Four tablespoons a day – that’s the minimum amount of extra virgin olive oil participants were told to eat when assigned to the Mediterranean diet plus olive oil group in a large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year.

Participants in the Mediterranean diet-olive oil group weren’t given a fat calorie limit, so it’s worth noting that the AHA suggests eating 500 to 700 calories from fat per day, for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet. Four tablespoons of olive oil falls just below this limit.

The study’s participants were encouraged to use the oil in general cooking, but the researchers – hailing from Spain – also recommended a more creative way to fold in this fat.

Special Sauce

The secret is a sauce called “sofrito.” Sofrito is a tomato sauce that has been a part of cuisine in the Catalan region of Spain since at least medieval times [1].  Today, it’s used as a staple of Spanish, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican fare [2].  The word “sofrito” comes from the Spanish “sofrier,” which means “lightly cooked” [2]. Tomatoes and onions are lightly cooked, or simmered, with our ingredient of interest – olive oil. Other ingredients, such as sweet or bell peppers, garlic and various herbs, are often added, though a multitude of recipes exist [2].

The Mediterranean diet study researchers advised their subjects to eat two or more servings of sofrito per week, encouraging them to use it as a dressing for vegetables, pasta and rice. Using extra virgin olive oil in the sofrito was key, as this type of olive oil is higher in the compounds thought to promote heart health.

The recommendations appeared be beneficial. The study looked at people between 55 and 80 years old who were already at risk for heart disease. It found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet with olive oil had a reduced risk of heart attack or stroke.

Why olive oil?

Olive oil was originally praised because it is high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), a form of fat associated with heart health.  However, studies have shown that other oils high in MUFAs, like soybean oil, don’t provide the same benefits. What does olive oil have that these other oils don’t? Phenols.  These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds have been shown to have positive effects on heart disease risk factors, such as cholesterol levels, and may reduce the risk of heart disease .

Sofrito for supper

If you want to stock up on phenols via sofrito, check out this New York Times recipe or this one from the Washington Post to make some special sauce of your own.


References (those not hyperlinked)

1.Andrew, C. (1999). Catalan cuisine: Vivid flavors from Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Boston: Harvard Common Press.

2.Raghavan, S. (2007). Handbook of spices, seasonings, and flavorings (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Julianne Wyrick About the Author: Julianne Wyrick has a bachelor’s in biochemistry and is currently a master’s student in the health and medical journalism program at the University of Georgia, where she also writes about science for the Office of Research Communications. Find her on the web at Follow on Twitter @juliannewyrick.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Kevbonham 2:57 pm 10/25/2013

    Is olive oil actually beneficial on its own, or just when you substitute it for other, less-healthy fats. In other words, if I have exactly the same diet, but *add* olive oil to it, will it have the same health effects?

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  2. 2. ironjustice 11:58 pm 10/25/2013

    They have shown the fatty acid content in the saliva of an omnivore from the vegetarian.
    “A greater salivary concentration of alpha-linolenic acid (18:3 n-3) (2.82) was found in V than in M subjects (1.65) (p = 0.001), ”

    Studies have shown the ratio of fatty acids seem to make a difference reducing the amount of other fatty acids, so the effect of adding a high alternative fatty acid content just may well overwhelm any negative fatty acid content of your diet, ratio wise?
    “Dietary, but not topical, alpha-linolenic acid suppresses UVB-induced skin injury in hairless mice when compared with linoleic acid.”
    So, would the fact people who eat meat have less alpha-linolenic acid in their spit, one might suspecty they also have less alpha-linolenic acid in their skin? Ratio, wise?

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  3. 3. shorewood 2:56 pm 10/28/2013

    Or, just eat a couple of olives a few times a week???

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  4. 4. eurotimbr 2:37 pm 11/6/2013

    Tomatoes are a new world product. I think the medieval period would have been over before they were used in Spain.

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