Long before the concept of super foods became a phenomenon, and way ahead of the curve of eco-conscious eating and plant-based diets, there was olive oil. It’s defied the waves of faddish trends endemic to the pursuit of longevity for decades, remaining a health stalwart for its natural goodness and the life-enhancing conviviality with which it’s been associated through the ages.
Is there anything more indicative of wholesomeness and deliciousness combined than wedges of warm sourdough scooped through bowls of extra virgin olive oil, platters of fresh salads, perhaps a carafe of wine, and the company of friends?
In the Franschhoek valley, it’s a way of life, and where boutique farms like Terre Paisible are producing extra virgin olive oils expressive of its unique terroir while raising the quality bar ever higher. For not all olive oils are grown or made equally, with quality superseding quantity in terms of the real health benefits to be found, from heart to head, gut to skin. With increased demand across the globe by consumers enamoured of the near-mythical Mediterranean diet, there’s a glut of industrially produced olive oils available that forfeit nutrition for a lower price point.
What is Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Authentic, extra virgin olive oils carefully pressed from smaller batches of superior olive varietals stand apart not only for their depth of flavour but also their higher levels of health-giving polyphenols.
Once harvested, olives are cold-pressed to preserve the natural antioxidants, oleic and linoleic acids. This, in addition to the lack of additives and preservatives, results in an artisanal product of substance, enhancing one’s overall wellbeing as much as it does cuisine, making it both a daily essential and a luxury worth investing in.
For all the credible claims that have come to be associated with it, including overall heart health, better cognitive function, and the prevention or management of diabetes and cancer, olive oil might seem something of a miracle cure-all, yet these are deeply rooted in science. While the not insignificant marvel of nature—fertile soil, the warmth of the sun, and all the elements that conjoin to produce the olive fruit—are part of its holistic allure as a super food, consumers can look to a plethora of rigorous studies that endorse actual health benefits. And the list is long.
Quality extra virgin olive oil is especially rich in polyphenols, in particular oleocanthal, considered an enemy of cancer cells, and which also gives the oil its distinctive slightly bitter taste. Polyphenols and other antioxidants like vitamin E have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-atherogenic, anti-thrombotic, and hypoglycemic properties, which regulate inflammation in the body.
Dieticians, wellness practitioners and heart-health specialists alike extoll the virtues of ‘good fats’, and it’s olive oil’s high monounsaturated fat content (against a low saturated fat content) that draws much of the attention, particularly oleic acid, which can help improve cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. Diets high in oleic acid have been linked to stroke prevention, too. Studies show olive oil can support brain health, suggesting it may safeguard cognitive function and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline, even warding off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While perhaps somewhat lesser to these more consequential benefits, olive oil is just as powerful as a natural beauty aid. Gently fragrant, its been used in simple soaps over millennia for its moisturising and softening properties, while its nourishing effects on hair and skin through diet are well documented, contributing to supple skin and shinier hair.
Olive oil is not only health-promoting when ingested in its raw state. New research points to its retention of many beneficial properties even after cooking, contrary to popular belief. With a higher smoke point compared to other unrefined oils, it’s among the healthiest oils to cook with and a taste- transforming ingredient to use freely in the most health-conscious of kitchens. Redolent of sunshine and the vitality of life, glug it over lemony grilled fish, pasta dishes, and bright bowls of leaves and herbs, or drizzle over goat’s cheese with figs and a myriad of other nutritious dishes with wild abandon.