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The healthy choice: olive oil

Studies have shown that olive oil adds more to the Mediterranean diet than just great taste. It's a fountain of health.

What makes it so? Olive oil has it all: antioxidants, good fats and vitamins.

Would you believe me if I told you there is an Israeli woman who credits her longevity to drinking a glass of olive oil every day? She's allegedly 120 years old.

Whether you believe or not, the antioxidants found in olive oil are in the form of naturally occurring polyphenols: hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol. (Antioxidants prevent cell damage caused by oxidation).

All oil is 100 percent fat. What distinguishes one from the other is the type and ratio of the different fats (mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated and saturated). Compared to other oils, olive oil has a very high percentage of monounsaturated fat (which is heart healthy) — about 77 percent.

When used moderately and in place of high saturated fats (or, dare I say, trans fats), olive oil helps protect the body from heart disease and strokes.

Olive oil also is rich in vitamins E and K. The former plays an important role in preventing heart disease, eye disorders, cancer and cognitive decline. The latter is essential for proper blood clotting and preventing osteoporosis and cell damage.

The health benefits attributed to olive oil include preventing cardiovascular disease, primarily by lowering LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) while raising HDL (good cholesterol), reducing inflammation and preventing certain types of cancer, namely skin and colon.

Olive oil is made by crushing the fruit into a paste, then pressing it to yield the oil. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first press, with no solvents or heat used. It's highly flavorful, the lowest in acidity and the priciest. Virgin olive oil also comes from the first press but is a bit more acidic.

Olive oil is generally a blend of refined oil (treated with chemicals and heat to neutralize flaws and flavor) and virgin or extra-virgin oil. And extra light olive oil or light is not lower in fat or calories, as one might think (sorry to break it to you). Light refers to color, taste or aroma, and is most similar to vegetable oils.

Picking the right olive oil is no easy task; some fine food markets sell up to 100 varieties. Check labels for sell by or harvest dates.

As far as fat and calories, all olive oils — actually all oils — are the same: 120 calories and 14 grams fat per tablespoon. So no matter what oil you choose, watch your portions, as they add up fast. Some of your favorite salads contain close to 1,000 calories because of the oil in the dressing. If your salad is supersized — the norm for most restaurants — think how many tablespoons have to cover it.

Store olive oil away from light and heat, as both tend to age the oil. If you don't use oil frequently, don't purchase large bottles — it will go rancid.

I'm not so sure I would go so far and top off tonight's dinner with a glass of extra-virgin olive oil — you're talking more than 1,400 calories and 168 grams fat for a 6-ounce glass. However, used moderately, the health benefits of olive oil are certainly worth a little fat.

Grilled eggplant dip

Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Servings: 8

2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds)2 each, minced: cloves garlic, green onions1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice2 tablespoons each: nonfat yogurt, extra-virgin olive oil1/2 teaspoon ground cumin1/4 teaspoon saltFreshly ground pepper

1. Prick the eggplants in a few spots with a fork. Grill them over a medium flame, turning often, until the skin is charred on all sides and the flesh is soft, 20-30 minutes; or roast in oven at 425 degrees until soft, about 45 minutes. Let cool.

2. Halve the eggplants lengthwise; scoop out the flesh. Puree the flesh in a food processor, or finely chop it by hand. Mix the garlic, green onions and parsley with the eggplant. Add the lemon juice, yogurt, olive oil and cumin. Season with the salt and pepper to taste.

Nutrition information
Per serving: 58 calories, 50% of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 79 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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