Olive oil may have been the original health food. The oldest known olive oil press is believed to be 5,600 years old. The Egyptian historian Sinuhe, who had to flee to what is now Turkey after overhearing a plot to assassinate the pharoah, described an abundance of olive trees 4,000 years ago.
And you won't have any trouble finding literally millions of references to olive oil as it is used in cooking and in health in books, in articles, and on the Internet.
Most health-oriented olive oil aficionados, however, would be surprised to learn that the highest quality olive oil has the lowest content of free fatty acids. "Extra virgin" olive oil has low acidity, because it has no more than 0.8 per cent free fatty acids. "Virgin" olive oil has slightly higher acidity, and slightly less "olive" flavor, because it contains up to 2.0 per cent fatty acids.
"Refined" or "pure" olive oil has to be filtered through charcoal to remove the various bitters and byproducts of pressing to make it edible. It's not necessarily unhealthy for you, because no chemical solvents are involved, but it won't taste very good. Outside the USA and EU, most of the olive oil sold is "pure." Olive pomace oil has been distilled with the chemical solvent hexane, and you really shouldn't eat it.
To get the real benefits of olive oil for health, you need its antioxidant polyphenols more than any essential fatty acids. The antioxidant content is greatest in cold-pressed, virgin olive oil. "Cold-pressed" oil is simply oil that is released from olives crushed at a temperature below 35° C/95° F, although there is no strict international standard for how cold a cold-press has to be.
You can use cold-pressed virgin olive oil in an astonishing number of ways. Use it for dipping bread, instead of smearing the bread with butter. Add as a dressing to raw vegetables, or to cooked vegetables after they have been cooked.
While you can fry with olive oil, exposing the oil to oxygen at high heat destroys the polyphenols. Including the olive oil in baked goods, however, does not cause these health-endowing antioxidants to break down.
You might, for instance, use virgin olive oil to make that favorite American snack, brownies.
Instead of some highly processed, chemically refined cooking oil, just use the same amount of olive oil. And for an interesting, albeit adult, flavor, add a little rosemary to the brownie batter. The combination of fruity flavors in the oily oil and piney flavors in the rosemary make the chocolate much more, well, chocolate-y. Little kids, however, may want their regular recipe.
You can also use olive oil to make muffins that aren't just cupcakes in disguise. And any baked good you make with lemon will also taste good with the addition to olive oil.
Getting healthy fatty acids and antioxidants into your diet doesn't have to be a drag. Experiment with olive oil and chocolate, citrus, and nuts for extra, natural flavor.