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.